Like many dogs, my dog Riley barks when she’s excited (either by other dogs or something else). That’s partly because self rewarding—she really just enjoys barking. Yet I really want her to learn that it’s NOT the most rewarding thing there is and to teach her that making me happy is MUCH more rewarding that just barking.
And that comes down to impulse control. As per the ASPCA:
Dogs are similar to babies. They have no idea that they can’t have things they want right when they want them and can’t do everything they want right when they feel the urge. Most dogs need to learn to control or inhibit their behavior.
She wants to bark so she does. I need to teach her the fun stops when she starts barking.
After looking for a while for games we can play to learn and practice this concept, I found the following game. In addition to teaching impulse control (which I used to teach her barking stops the fun), it’s also great for getting faster sits and faster downs.
The Concept: Ready, Set, GO!
To play, set your dog up then yell, “Ready, Set, GO!” and running a few steps with them by your side. After about 5-10 steps you yell, “Ready, Set, DOWN!” and the dog is supposed to lay down; then they get a treat (additional directions for working up to this are available on the ASPCA website).
After you’ve practiced this a few times, instead of rewarding with a treat, reward with more running—as soon as their belly hits the ground, start moving again.
You can also play “Ready, Set, SIT!” and start moving again as soon as their bum hits the ground.
The Results: Ready, Set, SUCCESS!
The first time I played the game with Riley (for about 10 mins) it was a success in every way.
- I saw an almost immediate increase in the speed with which her body was on the floor, even during just one play session.
- The game got her REALLY excited — so excited she started barking, which gave me a chance to teach her that the game stopped each time she barked (I’ll explain that more in a sec).
- She had a ball playing it. Even though we were only racing back and forth inside, in a fairly limited amount of space, she had a lot of fun doing a down command, typically her least favorite thing ever.
I started out with Riley sitting on my left on one side of the kitchen; then I yelled “Ready, Set, GO!” and took off across the kitchen. When I reached the other side I said, “Ready, set, DOWN!”
The first time I had to repeat the down command and lure her into position. Once she was there I rewarded her and started the game again, racing the opposite direction.
She picked up on it pretty quick and by the fourth or fifth trip across the kitchen her downs were almost instantaneous. WAY faster than I’ve been able to accomplish with any of the other games I’ve done, including free shaping a down.
Eliminating Excess Barking
And of course, she got so excited she started to bark.
Since the ultimate goal is hopefully teaching her that barking does NOT lead to fun things, it may be a bit confusing why I’m so happy the game got her to bark.
Here’s the thing: each time she barked I ended the game for a count of 5. I’d turn my back to her and ignore her until she was quiet and then I’d count to 5 in my head before we’d start it over.
It didn’t matter if she barked on “SET” — as soon as she barked I turned away and stopped playing. At one point she even barked after her down. The result? She lost her treat reward.
By the third or fourth time I stopped the game because of barking she GOT it! The bark changed to a grumbly growl and then it disappeared completely.
From Home To the Classroom: Red Light, Green Light!
When I teach this game in training classes, I typically call the game “Red Light, Green Light.” I start out by explaining the rules; then I have students line up along one wall of the training center.
I tell them that the first time I say “Green Light” they’re going to race across the room. When I yell “Red Light” they are to stop and ask their dog for a sit (or a down, depending on which skill we’re working on). When their dog’s butt hits the floor (or their belly, in the case of a down), that’s their “Green Light” to get moving again—they don’t need to wait for me to tell them!
The game is usually a huge hit. Students think it’s a lot of fun and their dogs have a blast playing the game. The only time it’s a problem is if we have dogs that do a lot of jumping up who get too amped up by the game—if that happens, I tell their owners to slow it down a bit, and/or tell them when their dog jumps up, the game stops (same idea as with the barking).