For young Service Dogs in Training and other working dogs with public access, “place” training is an invaluable tool that teaches rock-solid impulse and self-control, along with laying the foundation for “stays.” Learn how one trainer utilized “place” training for a puppy’s first flight.
The whine of the engines reached his ears long before they reached mine. I gave the 25 pound puppy curled at my feet a bemused look and a quiet reminder to “settle” as his shifting began. The sound was nothing he’d ever heard before in his life and the vibrations reverberated through his body. He was uncertain of what was going on even though he dutifully held his place. I slipped him a peanut butter-filled KONG and he happily settled back onto his mat, reassured by the familiar routine of place training and my soft touch.
I gave a soft grin as the puppy, a young Doberman Pinscher, responded exactly as I knew he would – with confidence and poise. For this handsome little man, it was his first of many cross-country flights.
Meet Resdo (a mash of “Rescue Dog”), a young search and rescue dog in training. State law and the airline we’re flying with afford him the same rights as a service dog and as such, he gets to fly free of charge in the cabin with me, his trainer. Many people look in awe at the very young puppy and exclaim, “He’s so well behaved! I wish my 3 (or 5 or 8 or “blank”) year old dog would behave like that! How do you train them to stay like that?”
The answer is two-fold: foundation and location. As the old adage goes, “Location, location, location.” From a very young age (6 weeks), our puppies are all “place” trained. Quite simply, they know that when they see a familiar object (typically a super soft bed that self-compresses into a stuff sack, like Ruffwear’s Highlands bed), they are to settle attentively onto their mat. We train this as a conditioned response with a tether. Our tethers are 18 to 24 inches long with a snap on each end. When the puppy is placed on the bed, s/he is tethered as well. As such, the puppy can either lay quietly on his/her bed or they can self-correct themselves by fighting the tether. While on the “place,” we provide a super fun activity – stuffed KONG, a raw knuckle bone or some other fun, attention-grabbing activity. The puppy quickly learns to settle in place and enjoy the provided task because s/he is not going anywhere soon.
That is the foundation and the literal location. We work that foundation every single day for 2 or 3 hours a day. While we’re working on paperwork or in class, the puppy is tethered. If we settle down in a meeting, the puppy is tethered. Within a couple of weeks, the rambunctious puppies who cried and pitched unholy conniption fits quickly settle and self-soothe. Typically, they work on their provided activity and then they fall asleep.
As quickly as possible, though, we want to take the puppy off the tether. It’s a super useful tool but it’s just that – a tool. We don’t want it becoming a crutch.
It’s at this point that positive reinforcement and the “stay” games begin. We tether the puppy as normal and begin handing them a super small (half a pea) treats. Every 2 or 3 seconds, the puppy receives another taste. Sometime in the middle of the treat giving, we casually reach down and untether the puppy.
The puppy will have one of two responses: he will either sit there, waiting for the next treat or he will run. If the puppy runs, the “stay game” ends completely. The puppy is scooped up and deposited in a crate and all treats/funness/interactions ends for a few minutes. Once 3-5 minutes have passed and the puppy is quiet and calm, he may be returned to his/her mat to continue.
If the puppy stayed on the mat, congratulations! You’ve got a focus hound on your hands. ☺ Continue giving the puppy small nibbles of treats every 2-3 seconds until the puppy decides to move. At this stage of the game, it will happen. Your response with this puppy is slightly different than if you were teaching a “stay” – the game merely ends. No more treats, no more interaction with you. Game over. Return to the game after a while and begin anew.
Your goal is to increase the amount of time between treats. 2 seconds turns to 5 and 5 seconds to 10 and 10 to 30 and 30 seconds to 1 minute and 1 minute to 5 and 5 to 10 and 10 to 30. Literally, second by second, minute by minute, the puppy learns a rock-solid stay that’s connected to his “place.”
Eventually, the mat itself becomes so high-value during these games the puppy happily assumes his place when directed. He will wait there all day on the off-chance that a treat or goody or fun activity will be delivered – and it’s a waiting game they love to play.
Resdo rather enjoyed his first flight. His place provided a secure spot of safety and familiarity, no matter the conditions around him. Long into his working life, Resdo’s place would provide the same portable sense of safety and confidence. For dogs and puppies in uniform, their portable location, consistent standards of behavior and solid foundation give the skills to succeed in unknown and sometimes chaotic situations.