Oprah Winfrey's golden retrievers are three of my favorite dogs. I met them when they were three months old, right after Oprah took them into her extended family, and I have been privileged to coach and play-train them through their various stages of life. One of them, Layla, is a great adventurer who could have been the leader of Outward Bound, if she was human. I used to call her Layla Cousteau because whenever she could, she'd dive into the pond with her eyes open, looking for fish! She was in her own private world, and when someone tried to get her out of the water, it was as if she suddenly went deaf. In the pond, she was in doggy heaven, and no amount of begging, pleading, or threats would reach her. When I saw the extent of her diving and exploring obsession, I knew that if left to her own devices, she would stay in there for days, which was frustrating for Oprah, and also not particularly good for Layla's health.

When I play train a dog, I always try the easiest method first, or the path of least resistance. If that doesn't work I'll try other ideas. (One of the greatest gifts of my military training was learning never to count on Plan A alone. I was taught to always have Plans B, C and even D in my vest pocket.) Since Layla felt that getting out of the pond was a bummer, I had to teach her to want to get out. I started by putting a chicken treat (the gold medal of treats) in my hand, took Layla by the leash and walked her to the pond, feeding her treats and saying, "Take it, take it, take it," as she happily munched away. Then I took a liver treat (silver medal) and threw it into the pond. "Dive, dive," I told Layla. She did not need to be asked twice! She flew into the water to retrieve the treat, but she still did not want to get out.

After she swam around for a few minutes, I dangled a gold treat from my fingers and lured her with it by saying, "Take it, take it." Layla hesitated. I could see her mind churning, "What should I do? I really like those treats." She compromised and took a step towards the edge of the pond. When she stepped out of the water, I gave her a jackpot of gold treats that I reinforced with the words "Take it, take it," using my happiest voice to praise her, as if she had just won the World Cup. Then I tossed a silver treat into the center of the pond, called out "Dive, dive," and she rushed back into the pond. That day, she went in and out of the pond whenever I asked her to—with the help of some wonderful treats, my happy tone of voice saying "Take it," and my arms extended wide open as a big reward. On a scale of one to ten, getting a jackpot of gold treats and then being allowed back in the pond was an eleven! Layla's pond explorations are no longer a problem, since she happily comes out when asked.

What I did with Layla was an exercise in healthy behavior modification that served us both. My challenge was to make her understand that when she got out of the pond, the fun would not stop. With my method, coming onto land was not a bummer, but a gift. Layla finally understood that getting out of the pond was not a punishment or the end of her play time. I could see her brain registering it, and then she made the change herself because she wanted to, not because she was afraid. I simply aligned her pleasure association with what I wanted, and she started getting out of the water when she was asked to do so.


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