I was down in Buckhead last Monday working with a new Home Dog Training client and his eighteen-month-old Golden Retriever named Rose. My client told me that they had recently moved to the top floor of a high-rise condo building from a single-family home in Marietta. Rose was used to a two-story house with a big, fenced-in back yard. Now she lives twenty stories in the air and had to take an elevator to get to the street and dog area around the corner.
I first wanted to shed some light on the “experience” of being in an elevator. I reminded my client that the elevator is a very confined environment that can often be filled (squished) with people. While in motion, it offers no foreseeable exit. This situation can sometimes last for an extended period of time. On top of that, your “field of vision” is often restricted. While all this is taking place, you may also experience strange sights, smells, sounds, and movements.
All the natural safeguards and senses that we use to keep us safe and secure do not exist in this environment. For dogs, this environment greatly hampers and often eliminates their natural ability of flight or fight. At this point, the only thing that is keeping them from becoming quite fearful, agitated, or aggressive is their trust in you.
They have given you their trust because they have determined that you are their protector, leader, and caregiver. This is a pretty tall order for you to fulfill.
This training challenge never needed to be addressed when my client and Rose were back at their house. Her level of safety and his ability to maintain her focus and respect all were in line with the environment that surrounded them. Obviously, things are now different. So, what did we do?
Initially, I needed to strengthen the bond between my client and Rose now that they were living in a high-rise condo. This process involves increasing Rose’s trust and focus towards my client.
- I always emphasize the importance of obedience commands with all my clients. I told my client that, even though she was pretty good with the basic commands, he needed to work with her on them in five-minute intervals about every sixty minutes during the day. (All done on the leash.)
- Just out of the blue, he should give Rose a simple obedience command. This could be anything like Sit, Come, Walk, Down, or Stay. As soon as she does, he must praise her.
- Next, he should start to walk away. After a moment or two, he should turn around, face her and give her another obedience command. (Since he had walked away from her, “Come” would be the obvious choice.) As soon as she complies, he must acknowledge her obedience.
- Immediately after that, I suggested that he give her the Walk command. They walk for about ten to fifteen feet in one direction (across the room), turn around, and then walk back. They now stop and he commands Rose to Sit. As soon as she does, he praises her correct actions.
- He should continue this “pop-quiz” for about five minutes. So, after about five minutes, he should stop the exercise as quickly as it started.
These quick “pop quizzes” of obedience strengthen the hierarchical bond of leader and follower between my client and Rose. By my client commanding Rose, he is naturally the leader and Rose is inherently the follower. Rose understands that it is her responsibility to always “keep an eye” on my client and be ready to respond to his direction. This creates a strengthened focus that will be critical in the elevator.
I told my client that before we started the actual elevator exercise, we need to perform a simple “prerequisite exercise”. We needed to “fill in the blank” from their condo front door to the elevator. We accomplished this by taking Rose for walks up and down the hallway between his condo and the bank of elevators at the end of the hall. As I always emphasize in my training, I stressed the need to take “baby steps” during this process
- Initially, I didn’t want them to walk all the way from the condo to the elevator. I had them start by walking halfway and then return.
- To make things more erratic, I had him walk Rose a little bit past the condo door, turn around, and then enter the condo. This helps establish a haphazard walking experience and minimizes any inappropriately learned anticipation.
- We slowly increased the distance until he could walk Rose all the way to the elevator and then back to the condo. I also asked him to sometimes walk past the elevator and return to the condo.
- We then added a new twist to the mix…
- I told him to walk and end up at the elevator. I then told him to press the button and let Rose hear the “ding-ding-ding” of the elevator coming to their floor. I emphasized that the moment the elevator door begins to open, he should calmly direct Rose away and back to the condo. They should repeat this activity until Rose gets used to the noise of the elevator approaching and shows no signs of anxiety.
After all of this, and only after all of this, are we ready for the actual elevator ride. Here we go…
- I told him to have a family member get on the elevator on another floor and come to their floor as he and Rose are standing near the elevator door. His family member should be the only one on the elevator.
- As the elevator door opens, he should give Rose a low, dominant sound so she will focus on him. Next, they should walk into the elevator and move to the back corner of the elevator. He should place Rose near the side wall while he remains closer to the middle/back of the elevator.
- The family member should now press several buttons so that the elevator will make several stops on the way down.
- If anyone wants to get on during the trip down, politely let them know that you are training Rose and ask them to take the next elevator. Every time the elevator door opens on the downward trip, I wanted my client to make the low toned sound to gain Rose’s focus at that moment.
- When they reach the bottom floor, the family member steps out first, followed by my client and Rose.
- They should repeat this several times a day for the next week or so.
As soon as Rose shows no signs of anxiety, misplaced focus, or heightened adrenaline during the “solo rides”, it is time to ramp up to the next level. We are now going to add real people into the exercise.
- They are to repeat the exact exercise as before, but this time people can enter the elevator at the stops. As the door opens and the person starts to enter, my client will give Rose his low, authoritarian sound in order to keep her focus on him. The leash should be short so that she is directly next to him. It should not be so tight that he is actively pulling her or choking her. If she starts to become nervous, his family member should immediately push the button for the next floor, and they should calmly exit. He should wait for a while until Rose is cool, calm, and collected; and then they should attempt the exercise again. If needed, make the “real people” entering the elevator people that Rose already knows.
- My client performs this exercise going up and down several times a day. If my client had to use “familiar people” for the exercise, slowly replace them with absolute strangers.
- As Rose becomes more relaxed with people in the elevator and he can easily keep her focus, they should take longer elevator rides with more people in the elevator. If, at any time, Rose starts to become nervous; they should stop at the next floor and calmly exit.
To make this a “totally real-world experience”, we need to add one more element. We will now add dogs to the mix.
- I told my client that he needs to find some neighbors with relatively calm and relaxed dogs. These dogs should be friends with Rose. He needs to ask them to “wait at some floors” along the elevator’s descent with their dogs.
- He and Rose should perform the “ride the elevator” exercise as they have done in the past. This time, when the door opens with “the stranger” ready to enter, they will be with their dog. I told my client to continue to perform the same action of giving his low toned, authoritarian sound to have Rose focus on him as the human and dog enter the elevator. If needed, he can give Rose a quick tug on the leash to maintain her focus on him and not the entering dog.
- My client asks his neighbors to keep the dogs on the other side of the elevator just to make sure that they can maintain a safe distance in the event of a problem.
- They should continue to ride down and up the elevator a few times a day, making sure Rose remains calm and focused as people and dogs enter and exit the elevator.
Rose is now fully socialized with the elevator ride. My client has consistently added small tests to show her that he is in control, and she is safe with him.
Please call Robin or me at (770) 718-7704 if you need any dog training help. We are blessed to have been your local dog training professionals for over seventeen years. We have trained over 5,000 great dogs and loving families and are ready to help you.