If you read my previous blog post about picking a puppy, you know that this summer my family decided to get a puppy. So in addition to dealing with all of the energy, training needs and general craziness of a puppy, I’ve also had to cope with some of challenges of going from having an only child to having doggy siblings. I quickly realized that there are a few new skills that my dogs needed to have to make our lives just a touch less chaotic. Today, I want to discuss one new cue that has come in extremely handy in controlling the canine energy level in our home – “take a break.”
As almost any dog owner can attest, dogs like to play together. It’s one of the reasons that people frequently cite for having more than one dog. It can teach them good canine social skills and give them an outlet for their energy. It can also cause furniture to be overturned, fragile items to be broken and landscaping to look like it’s been hit with a weed whacker. Play can also escalate to the point where the dogs become over stimulated and real fighting can begin — think toddlers who didn’t nap and have been at a loud, energetic birthday party for too long. Managing and interrupting play to give the dogs a chance to calm themselves before it gets to this point is critical to avoiding these problems.
You can teach “take a break” the same way you would teach your dog to come when called, by associating the word with an irresistible treat coming. Simply say the cue (“take a break”) and feed the treat. Repeating the word/treat process five or ten times per session with a couple of sessions per day over several days will really burn those words into your dogs’ brains as very important! Then you can start doing this when your dogs are slightly distracted. If you’ve really made that association, your dogs will turn their heads from whatever they were doing looking for the treat. At this point, start using it at the moment you notice your dogs starting to engage with each other in a playful way. If you slowly build up the difficulty, you will soon find that your dogs are able to disengage from each other and come to you even when they’re playing fairly hard. With my dogs, I am in the process of adding a “down” to the “take a break cue” which also helps to bring their energy level down. After they come to me looking for the treat, I ask for a down and have them stay down while I look for signs that they are calming themselves down, for example, slower breathing, relaxing facial muscles, or lying on one hip. Then I release them to go back to play.
Now, when I hear the telltale sound of frantic toenails scratching on hardwood floors or I see one of my dogs start looking a little wild-eyed, I know that can I interrupt before things get out of hand by using the “take a break” cue.