I once had clients with a beautiful Standard Poodle. They had been A+ dog owners in every way. Great puppy raising set-up, a lot of enrichment and toys for their dog, she was taken to puppy classes and obedience classes and went to doggy daycare whenever the owners had to leave for more than half a way. She loved all people and dogs, there was nothing in her life that seemed to scare or worry her. She was neither sleepy nor over-the-top driven, but a happy medium between the two extremes and very nice to be around.
The dog was by all means well-adjusted, happy, had received the very best care and training opportunities – but she just would not listen or even seem interested in interacting with her owners.
This was when they called me and asked for help. Their primary goal was to have an engaged dog who would actually want to do things with them, instead of by herself.
I visited and they explained the setup of their dog’s life to me. And I explained the Cup Theory, and how it is the reason their dog seemed to live in her own little world.
Every dog has an imaginary cup. This cup is a measure of his need for social interactions, fun and activities. Every morning your dog’s cup is empty, and throughout the day it gets filled.
Some dogs, especially working-bred dogs, have a very big cup. They are always ready to go-go-go and up for anything. They will play fetch for hours and learn a million tricks and go on a long hike, and when you get home after a day of activities with them they look at you and say “So … what’s next?”
Other dogs have smaller cups. These might be older dogs, dogs that were not bred to work daily or dogs that simply have a chill disposition.
Every time your dog does something throughout the day, his cup gets a little fuller. Whenever his cup is filled to the brim, he is done for the day; and ready to just relax and do his own thing.
Everyone knows their own dog the best – and you will know the best when your own dog’s cup is filled.
So … What Fills My Dog’s Cup?
Your dog’s cup can be filled by any interaction, fun, physical or mental activity that he experiences. This does not just mean playing with you, training with you or going on a walk with you – but also all kinds of events that you as the owner are not part of at all.
Some past-times that fill your dog’s cup and have nothing to do with you can be:
- Playing with the other dogs of the household
- Chasing lizards in the yard
- Having zoomies
- Chewing on toys
- Going to daycare
- Barking at people passing by the house
- Digging holes
Your dog might easily be able to fill his cup every day with very little input from you. Frolicking around by himself could be all that he needs in order to be happy and content.
(The dogs that cannot fill their cup by themselves, the ones that seem to need our attention and direct engagement are the ones we call “handler-focused” and say that they have a “will to please”.
In my opinion, they mostly have the will to have their cup filled by us.)
If you are reading this however, chances are that your dog can easily fill his cup by himself and when you get home at night, he has spent all day entertaining himself with the world around him and other dogs in his life and turns the other way when you want to train or play.
This is exactly what happened to the Poodle mentioned in the beginning. Her life was so meticulously planned out with activities that her cup was always full. Daycare, puzzle toys, chasing lizards, getting petted by kids walking by her fence, playdates with other dogs etc. provided her with all the interactions and fun and engagement she could wish for. But when it was time to train with her owners, she was not interested. While she had an appetite for the rewards, her mind did not have an appetite for learning at all.
No matter how enticing and fun you make the training, your dog with a full cup cannot appreciate it because he is not in the right mindset. Everyone (human and dog) has a point where they have had so much activity that more activity is not what they want – but just resting for a bit.
The Poodle felt like you might feel if you have a fulfilling but busy job, busy family life and are busy with home projects. While you enjoy your life and doing things, when you come home at night you might not be up for heading out on a bike ride or going to a big social gathering. When our cup is full, we are done with interactions.
Turning The Poodle’s Life Around: Having The Humans Fill Her Cup First
So here is what we did with the Poodle. We simply made sure that her cup was filled by her people and their activities first. She no longer had a pre-planned schedule for morning to night of every day, instead we made sure that the #1 priority on her daily list was quality time spent with her people.
She would always be very happy and energetic in the mornings. Previously this was a time when the owners would bring her to daycare as soon as it opened so she could get “the crazies out”. These crazies were really just a very empty cup waiting to be filled with something. Now this something was going to be play with her people.
The owners had initially told me that their dog had never played with them, neither with balls or tug toys. We were able to get her to play within just a week by using this magic morning time for playing. The played fetch, chasing toys and food games. Now she woke up every day wanting to play: Success!
Why did we introduce pure play first instead of training? Training requires the dog to do something for you and get something else in return, eg. sit for a cookie or spin in a circle and fetch a ball as a reward.
Some dogs start out so uninterested in learning that they do not even care for the reward when they can have it for free. A dog who does not want to play cannot be asked to do a task and then have the game he doesn’t want as a payment. Before our dog can take a reward as a payment for doing something, he of course needs to be able to accept it without doing anything.
By making sure we the Poodle enjoyed games and treats with no strings attached, we set up to succeed in further training as well.
Next up we introduced little training games. With the right approach, you can make even basic obedience very fun and engaging for the dog. If your dog is bored by the training, it is time to make training more entertaining. Ideally, I want to train a dog so that he trips over himself with enthusiasm when simply asked to sit.
(Need ideas? Our Basic Obedience Online Class makes obedience and manners all fun and games!)
These training games also happened before anything else filled the dog’s cup. She was not to chase lizards in the yard all morning or amuse herself by zooming around until she was tired and done with activities. Instead, she trained when her cup was still very empty – we wanted to make sure that her owners’ activities were the first thing that filled it.
Does That Mean You Need To Deprive Your Dog?
No, of course not. Every dog needs to do doggy things – sniffing, running, playing, chewing. If you are unhappy with your dog’s attitude towards training, you might just have to change the order in which he does different activities throughout the day. Don’t wait until his cup has filled to offer him training and play, because then it might be too late for him to get the most out of it!
Our Poodle did not quit going to daycare. She did however start to train before heading inside – even if it was just 3 minutes of loose leash walking and food chasing games in the parking lot. We made sure that every day her humans filled her cup a little bit themselves before anyone else was allowed to.
My Dog Doesn’t Have A Full Schedule …
You might be reading this and think, my dog doesn’t actually have a very full schedule and he still doesn’t want to train.
Dogs are really good at entertaining themselves with activities they have found, for long amounts of time. Maybe all that’s on your dog’s schedule is playing with the other dogs of the household. This will very quickly fill up his cup, it is physically exerting and mentally tiring and intense engagement. Not a lot of dogs will play with other dogs for hours and still have enough space left in their cup to want to train.
Think about what your dog is doing in a day and how full his cup gets by it. Then start to fill his cup before any of the other activities get a chance. He will enjoy training so much more!