Why We Teach House Manners — Or, Good Training Should Be Idiot-Proof

Like many dog owners, I’ve gotten spoiled by having a mature, well-trained dog in the house. Naturally, when we first bring home a new member of the family, we are obsessed with teaching all sorts of critical foundation skills (targeting, door and leash manners, handling exercises, and so on). But once those initial behaviors are in place, we give them little thought because we’re too busy focusing on performance behaviors, or working skills, or the next cute pet trick — whatever our particular venue may be.

What this means is that once I’ve taught my dog the way I need her to comport herself in the house, I get lazy. I do things I would never think of doing with a novice dog. And fortunately, our style of training holds up brilliantly in real-life situations — which, as a matter of fact, is why I still have the load of groceries I bought tonight.

Here’s some background: My house has a small kitchen, without a lot of walking space, and I have tall dogs whose noses can easily reach the counter or table. This means that from the very start, when a new dog joins my family, I train kitchen manners as a preventative measure. The system is that whenever food is present, the dogs are to lie quietly in the doorway to the living room (the farthest point away from the stove/sink area). This keeps me from tripping over them, and also prevents food theft when my back is turned.

This is an easy behavior to shape; whenever I’m cooking or handling food, I ignore the dog for being underfoot, but reward whenever she moves toward the door. When the dog begins hovering in the target zone, I shape a Down. The exercise is very much like basic matwork, and is easy to reinforce because I’m almost always training it when I have a supply of something tasty on hand. The dogs learn quickly that staying away from the tempting smells means they’ll get to sample something yummy. And because I’m not the neatest person when it comes to handling food, I’ve had ample opportunity to proof this behavior with distractions; if something falls on the floor, the dogs hold their positions, knowing it will likely be kicked over to them.

In short, this means I have learned to be a slob in the kitchen: I can leave food on the edge of the counter, hold the refrigerator door open while looking for something, and put food pretty much anywhere in the room without worrying that it will be stolen by a long-nosed Doberman. (Bad habits to get into, by the way.)

…Which brings us back to this evening. I had carried in about eight bags of groceries in preparation for making several large dishes for a special event. Because what I was making had a long cook time, I deposited most of the bagged groceries in the doorway, planning to start the first ingredients simmering and then put everything away while they cooked.

While I was working at the stove, it gradually dawned on me that the house was very, very quiet. This is not normal; there is usually some dog noise, even if it’s just the tap of Doberman toes on the hardwood. Silence usually means that one of the dogs has found some contraband object stuffed with polyfill and is sneaking off to the basement to dismantle it. Fearing the worst, I turned around, to find Valenzia in this position:

Valenzia and groceries

“You won’t lead ME into temptation, stupid human.”

Though the photo isn’t terribly clear, you can see that she is holding her calm, relaxed Down six inches away from three trays of raw meat. And two pounds of cheese. And a bunch of other tasty things that I had left on the floor, IN THE VERY SPOT I’D TRAINED HER TO GO TO. She was staring intently at me, with the occasional eye-flick toward the groceries, as if to say, “See, Mommy? I’m ignoring them. Look how well I’m ignoring them.”

Did I pause to consider that I was putting five pounds of raw pork right at nose level, or that I often feed Valenzia her raw-diet meals in the kitchen? Nope. I did something fairly stupid, actually — but because I’d trained for it, my dog rose above my own thoughtless actions, and everything was fine. So, the moral of the story is that properly-reinforced behaviors are powerful enough to overcome human idiocy. (Which is my only defense for doing such a stupid thing. Tempting the dog like this should not become a habit.)

Oh, and you can bet that Valenzia got something tasty for being smarter than her human. So the next time I do something dumb, she’ll have even more reason to show me up what good foundation skills we trained!

About Alena Van Arendonk KPACTP

Alena has been training professionally since 2000, specializing in working with animals who suffer from chronic fear or aggression. She completed her primary TAGteach certification in March 2010, and graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior in 2012. In addition to teaching training classes at CIA, Alena presents educational seminars on behavior modification and pet nutrition.
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  1. Love it! Great photo; glad you recorded it!

  2. test comment — pardon our tech experiments!

  3. So you give no notice about pop quizzes 😉

  4. Pretty amazing.
    I shouldn’t be surprised since this is what you do,
    but still…
    pretty amazing.

  5. What a smart girl Valenzia is!

    My proudest kitchen moment with Elka was when I dropped a container of taco meat on the floor, which of course popped open. She took a step towards it, then sat down and watched me clean it up. Without instruction.

    The kitchen is the best training room!

  6. That is amazing! I really must do this sort of training when Legend and I get a dog! 😀

    • I don’t mean that I’ll purposefully taunt our dog with lots of raw meat on the floor, I mean the training you were talking about that led up to that incident. o_O

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