Doggie Habits Annoying You? This Trick Is Spot On

Imagine how useful it would be if your puppy or dog knew that when you say, “Spot,” he should lie down and relax on his mat.

Teaching “Spot” means you won’t have to deal with your dog doing any of the following:

  • Going berserk when someone rings the doorbell
  • Sampling snacks off your coffee table
  • Hanging around the dinner table or under your baby’s high chair
  • Putting paws on the counter while you prepare a meal
  • Bothering your kids or guests while they are seated or standing
  • Pestering other pets in your household
  • Dropping toys in your lap while you try to relax after a hard day of earning money to buy dog treats
  • Jumping up on people you meet on the street
  • Straining and whining at other dogs or people in the veterinarian’s waiting room or in puppy class

None of those aggravating things can happen if your dog is lying quietly on a mat, so teaching this one skill will be of benefit to you in many ways. Your dog will benefit because he will earn plenty of rewards in the form of praise, petting, treats, a stuffed Kong, being included in more activities and having a chance to chill out.

Believe it or not, this is not advanced training. It’s the kind of basic skill (like sit or come) that any dog can learn.

You’ll need a bath mat to start (later you can transfer the skill to a mat as tiny as a washcloth, and just carry it with you!), soft yet non-crumbly treats in a contrasting color to the mat, and an indoor location free of distractions. Some practice teaching “down” is a bonus that will speed the process. Use a leash or train in a powder room if you think your pup may wander off.

Here’s how to teach it. For more details and troubleshooting tips see Puppy Savvy, and ask questions in the comments section below.

Session One

Have a few treats ready in your pocket. Be prepared to say “yes” and bowl the treat onto the mat as soon as your puppy looks at the mat. Why will he bother to look at it? Because you will start by spreading out the mat, standing two feet away and looking at it yourself. He will look, and you will reward immediately by saying “yes!” and tossing the treat onto the mat. When he is finished eating his tidbit, encourage him off the mat by patting your leg and saying “ok” (in the video I say “free,” which happens to be Ruby’s release word). Repeat 2-3 times.

The hardest part of this training is resisting the urge to convince your dog to look at the mat by pointing, leaning, or outright bribing with food. If you do this, the training will take ninety-two times longer, and his skills will never be as strong as they could have been. Just stand there and look at the mat. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Session Two

Warm up with a few reps of the above exercise. Then allow your pup to look at the mat, but don’t say a word. Just wait. His wheels will turn and he will walk over to the mat (because that’s where his reward has been magically appearing). When even one of his paws touches it, say “yes!” and feed him a treat. On each subsequent repetition, withhold your reward until another paw touches the mat (such that by the fourth repetition, he is leaving you, walking up to the mat, then putting all four paws on it).

Session Three

Start right where you left off. Spread out the mat and wait. Your pup will look at it, walk to it, and stand on it. Reward as usual. On the next repetition, count to one or two and then reward. Woo hoo! He went to his mat and stayed for two seconds. Now anything is possible! Repeat a few times, encouraging him off the mat in between repetitions.

Take a short break and play with a toy, or just run around the room and act silly together.

Back to training. Go near the mat. Wait. After he is standing on it, wait some more. Don’t say anything. He will likely plop his butt into a sit, because by now he’s figured out from your other training that sitting pays the big bucks, and that staying on the mat is also highly rewarding. Say “yes” and feed him several treats like it’s a big deal (which it is!).

Only do a few of those because the goal is for him to lie down, right?

Session Four

Repeat the last exercise, but this time wait for a down position (this will go quicker if you’ve already started teaching “down” separately). Instead of staring into the pup’s eyes, look at the spot you want his elbows to land. When he goes even partway into the down position, lavish him with praise and treats fed low between his front legs. Remember to release with “ok” before he has a chance to hop up.

Final Sessions

Now we make it look like real life. For the next few sessions, practice in several different places in the room. Then try your body in several different positions (sitting in a chair or lying on the couch—good practice for when you have the flu and don’t want your dog disturbing you). Work up to different rooms in the house and you standing at varying distances from the mat. Use awesome treats. If you get stuck at any point, try again, but do make it a wee bit easier if you get two failed attempts. 

When to say “Spot!”

When you can roll out the mat, in any room of your house, with you sitting or standing, from any distance you like, and your pup trots right on over to the mat and lies down, waiting for your release before he gets up (after a few seconds), then you are ready to add the magic word to cue him to go there. Just say, “Spot!” right as he’s about to do it and he’ll start to associate the word with the action he already knows.

You can add to the length of time he is able to stay there by counting more seconds before you feed his treat in the down position.

Soon he’ll be lying there for 30 minutes at a pop, perhaps enjoying a chewy while you have cocktails with your friends. It might even make you nostalgic for the days when he was so young and naïve, all cute and eager to learn this handy, new trick.

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Counter Surfing Safari

One of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever known was one we adopted when he was 4 1/2 years old. He was gentle, funny, wise, loved people and other dogs, and had a way of calming everyone around him. He helped me teach pre-school aged kids about the right way to meet a dog, and taught our new puppy how to play politely. He used to hop out of the car when we arrived at the veterinary clinic and race up to the clinic door to get in, delighted at the thought of all the people inside waiting to see him.

But when we first got him, he  was a horrible counter surfer. That means that he had his front paws up on the kitchen counters almost as much as he had them on the floor, and he likely had been rehearsing that behavior for years. The foster person who had cared for him before he came to us warned me about this. She said she had tried everything to keep him from surfing the counters to grab a snack or catch a whiff of food. She had tried yelling at him and spraying him with water. She had even booby-trapped the counters to scare him out of his habit. One time, she hid in the pantry with the door closed, silently lying in wait. When she heard the dog rustling about with his paws up on the counter, she sprang from the closet, broom in hand, making an explosive, “AArrrGgghh!” noise at him. He just looked at her, wagging his tail, as if to say, “Ha ha! Hey, did you happen to see any snacks in that pantry?”Ravenous

Well, we didn’t want him surfing our kitchen counters. Partly because we didn’t want his feet all over the countertops, but mostly because I didn’t want him eating my snacks! Not to mention that there are all kinds of things on countertops that are dangerous for dogs to eat. So, we decided to solve it right off the bat. How, you may wonder, did we do it?

When solving a dilemma like this, it helps to get inside the dog’s head. The key is to recognize that dogs do what works. And most dogs just love food. If standing on their back legs, balancing themselves on the edge of the counter with their front paws means they can reach food, or even just smell food, why wouldn’t they do it? Sometimes there may be nothing there, but they figure it is always worth it to check, because chances are someone left a morsel, or a dirty dish, or (yes!) a sandwich or a roast cooling unattended. Sure, they realize sometimes humans get cranky about it, but the reward is so wonderful when it does pay off, that it’s worth doing any chance they get. Besides, when the dog food bowl is empty, the counter is the only interesting area worth investigating. Such is dog logic.

And therein lies the solution. As in nearly all matters of dog training, the most effective approach is to prevent what you don’t want and reward what you do want. (Note that if your dog hasn’t yet started counter surfing, this process goes much more quickly than it did for us, since we were undoing a 41/2-year-old habit.) Our first step was to allow the dog in the kitchen only when we were present and prepared to make interesting, yummy items available at the level where we wanted the dog’s feet—the floor. We put up a baby gate for the first week, and only went into the kitchen with him when we had prepared a meal or food puzzle for the pooch. So he started getting into the habit of checking out the floor as his first order of business any time we entered Kitchen Counter Land.

In the meantime, we had to make sure that there was no chance that our counters would ever, ever be for him a source of food, or even the scent of food. It would not have worked to just shove things back from the edge of the counters; we had to make them a food-free zone any time the dog was in the kitchen. He began to default to choosing the floor over the counters (because of the goodies we provided down below, away from the counters), and so it was time to teach him that even if we left him unsupervised, the counters in our house would never be worth surfing. We did this by leaving him in the kitchen, with spotless, food-free counters, and Kongs stuffed with goodies placed on the floor. I remember leaving the house, and peeking in through the window to see what he was up to. The first few times, the rascal would leave his Kong, and counter surf! (Old habits die hard.) But soon thereafter, I’d witness him leave the Kong and merely walk along the length of the counters, feet on the floor, with his nose held high. He was still checking out the counters, but he had clearly learned it wasn’t worth the energy to put his paws up. Finally, about three weeks after we got him, we left him with his Kong, I peeked through the window, and he didn’t even budge from his spot on the floor. Success! It didn’t work for him to counter surf any more, because it never paid off, and all the interesting, smelly, delicious stuff was happening down below, on the other side of the kitchen. (Here are some pointers if you need help with your Kong stuffing technique.)

We will never know if his former owners may have encouraged his habit by saying “off,” shoving him down (he really liked to be touched and talked to!), or perhaps they left food out frequently, fed him tidbits as they cooked, or merely pushed food to the backs of the counters where he could still smell it. Showing him that something else worked for him did the trick. Unfortunately, we forgot that his new manners wouldn’t transfer automatically to a new environment without a refresher course. Which is why, in his first visit to my parents’ house, an innocent carrot cake fell victim to our negligence. I am sure he is still wagging his tail over that one.