The Four-Hour Dog
I’m a big fan of author Tim Ferriss. His “4-hour” series of books have been very influential to me in the past few years. A lot of his ideas and strategies for “life hacking” are not only incredibly useful, but are also applicable in so many other facets of our lives. I recently realized I’d somewhat accidentally used some of these strategies training my youngest dog, Wyrm, and the results have been phenomenal.
The first strategy I used was “what if I did the opposite…”. A lot of Tim’s success has been because he figured out what most people were doing and experimented with doing the opposite. As a dog trainer, I’ve put a lot of time, effort and energy into teaching my dogs a huge repertoire of behaviors, tricks and skills. With Wyrm, I intentionally have limited the quantity of behaviors I’ve taught him. Why would a dog trainer refrain from training his dog? I realized that the more training I “put on” a dog, the more manufactured and artificial their behavior was. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, just an observation. Obviously I love dogs. I also love dog training and understanding dog behavior. That being said, I felt that my relationship with my dogs over the past few years had fallen a bit out of balance, and that I was using my ability to change and manufacture behavior just because I could, and because I enjoyed the process. That’s a wonderful thing, but I’ve also been thinking that the more I change a dog, the less of the original, natural dog remains. If I love dogs, why am I spending so much time and energy in changing them? Preventing and addressing problem behaviors are one thing, but why all the tricks and superfluous behaviors? Teaching is fun for me and learning is fun for the dog, but we both enjoy a good walk in the woods just as much, if not more. With Wyrm I decided that my training strategy would be “less is more.”
The second of Tim’s techniques that I have put into practice with Wyrm has been the 80/20 principle. The idea is,”how can I achieve 80% of the benefits with 20% of the work?” With Wyrm’s training, the answer is in carefully selecting the most critical behaviors to teach, and then using the time and energy I normally use to teach additional behaviors to sharpen those skills to a fine edge.
The behaviors I have devoted the most time and energy into teaching Wyrm are the recall, and the down stay. These two behaviors alone can build an amazing foundation that can provide every skill Wyrm will need to enjoy a mostly off-leash, safe life where he is thought of as a well-behaved dog, even though he really only knows two skills.
The recall is the foundation behavior for not only coming when called, but also for loose leash walking and the heel. Honestly, a heel can be viewed as a continuous moving recall. The recall not only can save your dog’s life when he is running towards traffic, but can also prevent your dog from engaging in unwanted behaviors. If your dog is, for example, running to greet a stranger and you don’t want him to jump on them, a strong recall prevents the dog from jumping. It is an incompatible behavior. It’s impossible to jump on someone when you are moving rapidly back to your owner. The truly amazing thing is that over time, the dog begins to recognize the situations that reliably result in you calling them, and begin to come to you in those situations without being called. This is how training and using a solid recall can become an incredible way to shape your dog’s behavior.
Our recall is not the standard 6-week obedience class recall, though it started in the same way and built upon that foundation. We built our recall first on leash, then on long leash, then on a long light leash, then we gradually faded the leash. At each stage, we began with little distraction and progressively added distractions until the behavior was reliable in every situation we could realistically conceive of. Wyrm has an incredible recall because he has had tens of thousands of repetitions of engaging in the behavior in many contexts and being rewarded for it. The process of developing a 95% reliable off-leash recall took us between 8 and 12 months, and we practice several off-leash recalls daily to maintain the behavior. I did the math on roughly how much time we have spent over the past 5 years on recall training alone, and it is very likely in excess of 150 hours. That sounds like a ton of time, but in reality it boils down to 10 minutes a day for the first year, then 5 minutes a day for the remaining 4 years. This is a time commitment most people can make, and the return on the time invested is incredible.
The down-stay is Wyrm’s other staple behavior. The down stay acts as Wyrm’s emergency brake. It also gives him a job to focus on when I need him to be still and control himself. It’s tremendously important to teach your dog a self-control behavior. Dogs do not come with self-control installed, and learning self control is critical. Once a dog has learned to control his body, he also has learned to control his mind. The down-stay is how Wyrm, a high-energy, high-drive, almost frenetic border collie, has learned how to settle his body and mind down (at times, at least) to a level compatible with living with humans. It also has taught him delayed gratification, and is my go-to default behavior I ask him to perform in order to get what he wants. This eliminates a lot of annoying behavior. For example, if you ask your dog to lie down before you throw his ball, eventually the way he “asks” for you to throw is to give you the ball and then lie down. This is far less annoying than his favorite way of asking, which is getting in your face and growling, then playing keep away when you try to take the ball.
The reason we use a down-stay instead of a sit stay is simple - Wyrm, like many border collies, has a nearly hard-wired affinity for laying down. If he had a naturally strong sit, I probably would have used that instead. The specific behavior isn’t important, it’s the lesson of self-control that matters. Just as with his recall, Wyrm has had thousands of repetitions of getting what he wants (rewarded) paired with engaging in this self control behavior. We began in a low distraction environment on leash with food rewards and progressively increased the difficulty level to the point that now Wyrm can drop (and slide) into a down from a full sprint, or hold a down-stay while all manner of distractions tempt him. We probably have spent half as much time on his down-stay as his recall over the years, but that 2-5 minutes a day adds up to 50-125 hours over the past 5 years.
The payoff for about 7 minutes a day of training, mainly focused on these two key behaviors is a dog that is reliable off-leash in nearly every situation we have come across in the past 5 years. Is he perfect? Of course not, but then neither am I. What I’ve gotten out of this experiment is an incredibly enjoyable, mostly wild dog who is also capable of tremendous control. He’s not better than my other dogs who have a more varied and traditional learned-behavior repertoire, but he is certainly different. I like the dog he is, and I appreciate him for his authenticity. I’m not suggesting that this is the best way to train your dog, but it definably worked out well for Wyrm and I.