Dog handlers and trainers spend so much time thinking about how to train their dogs to do specific behaviours and exercises, yet they make the whole training process far harder for their dogs and themselves by forgetting to teach the dog when it is in WORK mode, and when it can RELAX - ie."on" and "off" switches for the dog.


You may think this is rather a trivial thing to teach a dog, yet, as we will explain, the benefits of doing so reap rewards in all aspects of the dog's life, not just at training times. It is particularly beneficial to train a puppy or dog the concept of "on" and "off" switches from the very first day of owning it so that it can learn to trust your consistency of when you want it to work and when it can relax and unwind.


Try to imagine what it would be like if your employer was entitled to ask you to work at ANY time of the day or night, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You could never really relax or take time to do what you wanted to do just in case you were suddenly called upon by your employer to do a job for him. This is what it is like for a dog who has not been trained to understand when it will be asked to "work" ("on") and when it can ignore its handler as it will be left in peace ("off").


Every movement that the handler makes (eg. hand gestures, or moving not only around the house but while out on walks together) could be a signal to the dog to do an exercise or behaviour. The dog feels obliged to continually watch the handler and cannot fully relax and enjoy just "being a dog" (ie. either resting or using its highly specialised senses to explore its environment). These dogs have become used to being given random commands from their handler or family at any time. For instance -

  • asked to do obedience exercises (eg. "sit" or "lie down") in situations it was not expecting, such as in the middle of its off-lead walk; when the family are eating their meal; when the dog is eating its meal; in training situations where it was not taught obedience exercises such as agility classes.
  • playing games with the dog, such as "catch the ball", even though the handler had relaxed to watch the television and usually leaves the dog in peace.
  • the handler is talking to someone yet suddenly breaks off their conversation to give the dog a command; how is the dog supposed to distinguish between humans talking amongst themselves and verbal commands directed at the dog?


The only time the dog feels it can truly switch off is when the handler is not around (eg. when they go to sleep or leave the house).


The dogs are watching us all the time which is why, when we go to pick up our keys or our walking boots, the dog reacts because of the familiarity of these triggers. We may have our minds elsewhere thinking about where we are going to walk, what will i need? shall i go to the shops before or after the walk? what are we going to have to eat, etc etc. 




As with all animals, dogs need plenty of deep sleep in order to lower their long-term stress levels and keep their body healthy. When they are unable to get sufficient amounts of quality sleep dogs find concentration and learning very difficult, while their bodies may begin to show physical symptoms of the stress that they are under. Therefore, it is very important to train a dog to recognise that it is "off duty" and can relax, and that we will give it a specific signal or command when we want it to do something for us.


Some handlers and dogs muddle through and come up with an unintentional command for the "on" switch by saying the dog's name before telling it to do something. For instance, they call the dog's name in a specific tone (which makes the dog look towards them) and then say "come" etc. However, some handlers use the dog's name for so many different purposes (see the "Guest article"  What's in a name?)  that the dog becomes confused and begins to ignore the sound of its name, which it begins to see as a stressful trigger. Other dogs interpret the handler's hand going in their pocket as the start of "work" as this is where their motivator is usually put - unfortunately humans put their hands in their pockets for many different reasons and this inconsistency confuses and frustrates the dog too.


Therefore, when deciding on what visual or verbal command to use to tell the dog that it is expected to work, make sure that you will not accidentally do them when your dog is nearby and may misinterpret what you want. For example, I prefer using the command "working" or patting my leg to signal to my dog that we are about to do some training or exercises - both of which I very rarely say or do at any other time.


These same concepts can be used when deciding what commands or signals to use to tell the dog that it can relax and ignore whatever the handler says or does until it is given the "on" command again. The problem is that it is very rare for dogs to grasp what our unintentional signals are to allow them to relax - it is usually only when the handler leaves them alone that the dog understands that it is "off duty".

I use the command "that will do" while waving the dog away with my right hand and breaking off eye contact with the dog. By consistently ignoring the dog after doing these signals my dog has come to recognise that however much it tries to pester me or follow me it will not be rewarded with being given more work or any motivators (especially making eye contact with me which the dog finds the most rewarding). It has learnt to go off and play by itself or to lie down, sleep and "switch off".


Whatever you decide to use to signal to your dog that it is time to work or not, the most important thing to remember is to be consistent when you do them. It is no use telling your dog to go "off duty" only to start talking or playing with it a couple of minutes later. How is the dog going to learn what you want it to do and believe and trust what you ask of it in future?





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