Earn Life

This is a program for dogs - for dogs in training, for pushy dogs, for dogs that lack attention, and even for puppies as they are brought up to understand the "rules" of the household. It's good for virtually all dogs, but is especially helpful with pushy, assertive dogs - the ones that are often (incorrectly) called "dominant" (click here for more about this).

Earn Life is all about teaching and requesting mannered behavior. Not at all difficult to implement, Earn Life can become so much a part of your daily routine that it's automatic - for your dog and for you.

Earn Life doesn't require setting aside special "training" time. It exploits the fact that life itself is full of rewards. It is! Think about the pleasures in your dog's everyday life: Eating a meal or a treat, going for a walk, playing ball, getting attention, being stroked and petted, chasing the cat, romping with the kids, going outside, to the beach, for a ride - and the list goes on. A dog's daily life is full of fun, tasty, enjoyable, and pleasurable things.

What do most dogs do to earn access to these pleasures? Generally nothing. Oh sure, he gives pleasure in return. She give you companionship, love and makes you smile. But dogs do that simply by being there with us - no effort involved.

Think about this. If you're like most people, you work to earn the money to buy the food that you prepare in order to eat. You earned your meal! Even children are required to earn what they want when we teach and request "please" from a child asking for a cookie.

But what do we ask of our dogs when we feed them? Most of us ask nothing of our dogs at mealtime. We just put down the food dish. We ask nothing when we take him out for a romp; or pick up a ball to play; or stroke and massage and groom him. Such generosity has three drawbacks - first, it can excuse (and even reward) pushy, obnoxious behavior; secondly, it misses opportunities to teach (and reinforce) manners; and finally, it overlooks guidelines for and boundaries of polite behavior - as important for dogs as for people.

Think of Earn Life as you would "earn cookie" for a child. The child has to say "please," and figuratively, so does your dog. Here's how to teach it.

Say "Please"

Training starts with an understanding of a posture that your dog automatically assumes when she's unsure or confused. Called a dog's "default" behavior, for most this posture is to sit; for some dogs it's down; and for a rare few it's another behavior. (We met a wonderful Beagle at a seminar whose default behavior was sit-up-and-beg. He'd hold that position for minutes on end.) You'll recognize your dog's default behavior as the position he most often assumes when he's not sure what you want.

Think of your dog's default behavior as the key to open the hypothetical (or literal) door to give your dog what she wants. Default position is the same as the child saying "please." You wait for it, and then reward it by giving the dog what he's asking for. Here's how it works at mealtime.

Earn my meal

Fix your dog's dinner, and carry the dish to the spot where he eats. Stand straight holding the dish at waist or chest height, and look at your dog. Chances are your dog will assume his default position. If not, move the bowl over his head to lure him into a sit. (Note: You can verbally cue "sit," but since the goal is for the dog to respond automatically, it's better to let him learn to offer the behavior without being told.)

If your dog jumps up on you, calmly say "too bad" or "oops" and turn your back to your dog. Once his feet are back on the floor, turn toward him and start again. Repeat this until he sits. If he has jumped on you several times, this would be a good place to end the first session - when he's sitting without jumping up on you. With your dog sitting, say "Yes!" put the dish down and walk away.

At the next meal, repeat this process, and once he's sitting, praise with "good" and start to put the dish on the floor. As you lower the dish, chances are your dog will get up. The moment he rises, say "too bad" or "oops", lift the dish, and stand up with the dish in your starting position. Keep repeating this process until you can put the dish on the floor. Pause, then say "Yes!" or "Okay!" and let him eat. If your dog gets up before your release word, say "too bad" or "oops" and start over.

You may take a few meals to gradually progress to having your dog wait until after the dish has been put down for a few seconds, but if you're consistent with picking it up to start over each time your dog moves, he'll quickly get the message. What's the message? I "earn" my dinner by holding still until I get permission to eat.

Earn petting

Your dog asks for attention or petting - usually by nudging or pawing at your arm. It's so automatic to just start stroking, but this is a great opportunity for another Earn Life. For this one, use a cue - requesting that your dog sit or lie down to earn your petting. If he fails to respond, say "too bad" and fold your arms, removing his ability to nudge at them. The removal of your arms and your attention is "punishment" for his failing to say "please."

After 10 seconds, request the sit again, in a calm, unemotional voice. Avoid the temptation to get progressively louder with each repeated request. You want your calm, quiet tone of voice to be what your dog responds to, even if it takes several tries to get the response.

Once your dog is sitting, the reward is your attention - which your dog has earned rather than demanded.

Earn "Go outside" or "Go for a walk"

You want to take your dog for a walk - and your dog wants to go. She's very excited and happy at the prospect of a nice romp. You pick up her leash and collar to put them on, and she's spinning happily - too excited to sit still. But she can - honest. Self-control is something you can teach your dog as part of this program. Tell her to sit, and when she does, begin to put on her collar and leash. If she gets up, say "too bad" and stand up straight. Repeat this until she sits still to have her equipment put on.

The first time you try this, it may take several minutes and many tries. But don't give up. Once you have been able to show your dog how she wins - how she gets to go outside by simply sitting still for a few seconds - she'll be much faster to catch on the next time, and even faster with each repetition. Pretty soon you'll have a dog that automatically sits and waits as you put on her jewelry to take her for a walk.

Other ways to Earn Life

As this program demonstrates, food is not the only reward in a dog's life. His life is full of rewards that can easily be used in this program. We're sending a simple message: you can have all the fun you want if you behave politely and ask nicely. Here are some other suggestions - but don't be limited by these.
  • Lie down and wait for a treat
  • Sit or stand still to greet you at homecoming (or to greet guests)
  • Sit and wait for a ball to be thrown
  • Sit and wait for the leash to be removed for a romp in the park
  • Come for a treat
  • Sit and wait when the door to outside is opened
  • Sit and wait to get into the car
  • Sit and wait to get out of the car - even more important as this one is a lifesaver
Think of all the activities you control access to, and use them to reward your dog for earning them by politely saying "please." Far from minding, the truth is that when you start asking your dog to earn life rewards, your dog will like it better, too. Dogs are happiest when they have a job to do. They like having rules, boundaries and functions to perform. The Earn Life program is good for everyone - for you and for your dog. Try it. We know you'll like it - and so will your dog.

If this program doesn't work for you or you're having problems with an assertive dog, talk with a professional trainer - preferably a clicker trainer or positive trainer in your area, or click here for information on our in-person, email and telephone consultations.