To train, or not to train…

On my last blog post, we actually got a lot of responses. And I love it when people respond to our posts! Tom and I were kind of surprised, though, because we aren’t actually that worried about the holes; it was meant to be more of a fun, day-in-the-life with dogs post. Since they are part Jack Russell, digging for them is about as instinctual as herding is for a sheep dog. We do appreciate the concern though. I can see how my saying I felt bad for the extra work Tom would have would make some think we were really upset about our yard, but we aren’t. The holes they dig are part of what we have to expect from their genetic makeup. The holes aren’t wide enough beside the fence to be an attempt at escape. We walk our pups, take them with us on day trips where they can see other dogs, and take them to dog parks. They also have each other, so they aren’t ever lonely. They are happy, exercised, well-adjusted, well-socialized dogs.  They will even try to dig holes in the carpet sometimes. It’s just part of the breed they have come from (or one of the breeds they have come from, anyway).

Some of the comments listed ways of preventing digging in yards, and, again, I appreciate the willingness of everyone to help. But, I did want to comment on one of the methods-leaving balloons with dogs can be really dangerous, especially if it’s popped. Just like with babies, they might have the pieces in their mouths in no time flat, and they will choke on the rubber, or it could cause intestinal problems if they don’t choke. I’m sure it’s effective in scaring them, but you would have to be there to pick up the pieces immediately.

Of all the suggestions, poop in the hole is the only one that seems natural enough that it wouldn’t lead to possible negative effects. My sister, Kristen, had also told us about Bitter Yuck when we first got the pups. It’s something that you can spray on things to make it taste gross. It doesn’t hurt them, it just tastes very bitter to discourage them from biting or chewing anything that would be sprayed in it. Bitter Yuck has nothing to do with digging holes, but it’s another suggestion that doesn’t hurt dogs but does discourage them from certain activities, like poop in a hole they were digging.

I’m a fan of positive reinforcement when training animals. One of the best ways to do that is with clicker training. It’s how I trained animals in college (bears, deer, bobcats, otters) when I volunteered at Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail and how the keepers I worked with trained animals (primates, elephants, otters, tigers, lions, etc) at Zoo Atlanta when I interned. And it’s how I train our dogs when I care enough to want them to do something differently. It makes them want to do that thing because they know doing it will have a good result instead of being afraid (balloons) or in pain (pepper up a very sensitive nose), which can lead to very stressed out animals. Most animal trainers agree that positive reinforcement is really the best, if not the only, way to go. One big fan of it is Victoria Stilwell of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me Or The Dog.” Clicker training is very easy to learn, and dogs respond to it quite well. One thing I saw Victoria do for a dog, Lottie, whose digging was instinctual and that was destroying a prize-winning garden (she was literally ripping up expensive plants and shredding the grass) was to have the family put a small sandbox in the garden that was just for the dog. They would bury toys in it and then Lottie would have a blast digging in her sandbox. They encouraged her to dig there, and soon, that was where she went to dig.

On her site it says:  “Stilwell is passionate about using positive reinforcement training methods that enhance a dog’s ability to learn while increasing confidence. The results are a healthy, well-adjusted pet.  She is firmly against the use of forceful, dominance-based training techniques which often result in ‘quick fixes’ but ultimately cause more long-term harm than good.” And she’s right. It’s amazing what the wrong type of training can do to an animal, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of trainers who were working with a wide variety of animals. Positive reinforcement is the only method that I have seen consistently used, praised, and proven effective long-term without harmful side-effects on dogs and other animals.

I’m sure that most people think that digging is instinctual for all dogs. And to a degree, it probably is. But some dogs have been specially bred for their ability to burrow after certain animals. The Parson Russell Terrier was a hunting dog. They were the perfect size to lay across a saddle then be sent to the ground quickly to go into burrows after animals, usually foxes, in order to flush them out or hold them captive until the hunter could dig to the dog. Their small size and their ability to dig was vital to their hunting success. Jack Russell Terriers are decedents of the Parson Russell, though they are now considered different breeds by the AKA. Their “purpose” as working dogs was the same-their size, skill, and temperament made them perfect dogs to dive into burrows after foxes and other animals.

This Jack Russell is coming out of a burrow. This is what they were bred to do.
This Jack Russell is coming out of a burrow. This is what they were bred to do. Thankfully, our dogs aren’t quite so into holes as this dog. Ours are also not pure Jack Russell.

So why aren’t Tom and I training Sam and Liam to not dig holes in the yard? Basically, because we don’t want to have a sandbox and the holes aren’t so awful. I just wanted to do a blog post about the dogs, and I had seen a few holes in the yard, so I did a post on the holes. But we don’t mind them enough to spend hours out in the cold training them not to dig. That’s all!


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