Many years ago, when I first started in dog training, my husband helped me name my original business. We called it Enjoy Your Dog Training School to pinpoint my dual goals:
- Dog training exists so you enjoy your dog as a companion, and
- You should enjoy your dog training “school” of choice, too
That second part was important for us because, even today, I clearly remember what it felt like to be yelled at in a dog training class: “Control your dog!!” Um, that’s why I’m here…because I don’t know how to control my dog. (Otherwise, I’d be at the coffee shop with her and not in your class getting yelled at, don’t you think?)
So, yes, my training philosophy begins with kindness to both people and animals. No one’s getting yelled at for not knowing what to do or making mistakes.
More specifically, I train from the guiding principle that:
“Your dog is always doing exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing.”
I know, I know – the first thing that comes to your mind is, “What? He’s supposed to be barking like a maniac? What about stealing food from the counter? Or, lunging and barking at other dogs? Dogs are definitely not ‘supposed to be’ growling at kids. Bah! Sounds crazy to me!”
But, wait, think about it for a minute. Your dog is just a dog. On his own, he can only come up with dog ideas. Whatever behavior he’s doing is because it makes “dog sense” based on your dog’s individual life experiences to date. It may not make sense to you, but you are not your dog.
It’s OK for your dog to be a dog. Really, because what else can she be? Several years ago, our across-the-street neighbor’s “lady friend” moved in with her dog. As the new dog on the block, she would often bark at my dog, who would usually bark back. My new neighbor was very embarrassed and upset about this (did she think dog trainers have perfect dogs…ha, ha, ha!) until I finally reassured her, “It’s OK. They’re ‘just’ dogs.” I meant that use of “just” not to demean dogs but to point out that they are just what they are — in all their wonderfulness as dogs that do dog things.
Here’s the part that I find so freeing:
“If you don’t like what your dog is doing, you can change it!”
It’s so much easier to find solutions when we all agree that no one is “bad.” Let’s move on from the, “He should know better” or, “He should respect me” or whatever blah, blah, blah is keeping you from fixing it so you can enjoy your dog. The reality is, the dog jumps on people. Well, let’s change that. Today.
When you think your dog “should” do anything other than what he’s actually doing right in front of your eyes, your argument is with reality, not with your dog — kind of like saying it “shouldn’t” rain on prom night just because you don’t want it that way. This is the root cause of so much frustration pet owners feel, particularly when dog training philosophies feed that misconception.
If you get stuck on the view that the dog has a character flaw (stubborn, dominant, jealous, spiteful, etc.), where are you going to find solutions to THAT? Dogs don’t go to therapy and, even if they did, it’s not like you could send them with a note about what they need to work on.
The dog doesn’t need an attitude adjustment — he needs to practice calm greetings in a way that fosters a new habit. We can do something about that! Same with any training issue.
In my experience, the most effective way to build new habits is:
Train From a Point of Success
Every dog’s got one! It doesn’t matter how “bad” your dog’s behavior is — well-done reinforcement-based training empowers you to “claim” the good responses and shape them into a new habit. Whenever you start from what your dog CAN do, you’re in a good position to build the behavior you want. Somehow, dog training has narrowed in the public perception to only being about trying to make the dog stop once he’s already doing what we don’t like.
Personally, I don’t choose to work from a point of failure.
I like to take whatever an individual dog can do and make it stronger — until the dog’s habits and responses better fit the owner’s needs and everyone enjoys each other’s company. It’s so fun to look at a dog and know, “I can do something with that!” (And you can, too!)
When it comes right down to it, we all want dogs that fit in with our families and basically do what we want them to do without having to micromanage them. Pretty much by definition, “training” must lead to visibly different behavior choices in the future. Otherwise, it’s “attempted training.”
And, that’s what I usually see — a lot of effort, good intentions, money and time invested, etc. and still there’s frustration in place of joy. The dog only responds to one person in the family or will only do it if you have a treat or won’t listen in certain situations or you have to repeat yourself a number of times or pull on the collar or whatever.
Training is a matter of equipping your dog with the skills he or she needs in order to be successful in the situations your life requires.
For example, I walk my kids to school with our dog. We regularly pass lots of the same people working on issues with their dogs, with varying degrees of success. My dog used to not be able to pass other dogs in close quarters, either, so I’m very sympathetic and give people lots of space. But if you have to threaten your dog or jerk on the leash every time you walk past us, it may be time to evaluate the effectiveness of that approach. My dog’s behavior used to be really bad but now you can’t tell. That’s effective training — equip the dog with new skills and move on with your life.
Here’s where you can bring back the “shoulds” in a way that helps, not hinders, your training goals. “I think my dog should be pulling less on the leash based on the the training I have attempted so far. Reality says he’s still pulling in these particular situations. Let’s see what I need to adjust.”
Anyone Can Do It!
What good is a dog training methodology if it fails the smallest/weakest members of the family?
Reinforcement-based training is accessible to anyone. Yes, you can earn advanced degrees in the underlying science if you find it fascinating, but you can also just be a normal person taking delight in what your dog can learn.
One class participant was so happy to see her dog get it that she had yell out, “My dog’s not stupid after all!!”
Specific Methods and Tools
There sure are a lot of buzzwords in dog training, aren’t there? It’s hard to know what anyone’s about without the specifics. If you already know you want positive-reinforcement based training, you can rest easy. If you’re not sure what’s what or have had some success with a mix of methods or you just want to have a life and enjoy your dog, you’ll find that modern reinforcement training makes any situation better because it fills in the gaps for your dog on what you want her to do instead.
To do this, we’ll use anything you’d say your dog would welcome more of (food, toys, attention, petting, access, etc.). Behavior you like is matched with things your dog likes. Everyone wins. Every dog in every situation has a point of success we can start with.
In situations where we need to have the dog on a leash for safety, she can wear a regular collar or a body harness. I don’t have a use for choke chains, prong collars or any other equipment that needs the dog to fail in order to serve its purpose of “correcting.” Remember, we’re working from points of success so we won’t need any of that.
If your dog makes a mistake, we will use that as information and try again. “He thinks it’s x; we want it to be y. Let’s clarify.” (Don’t worry, I don’t make a habit of training in rhymes.) Nothing bad happens to your dog.
If your dog is physically hard to manage, let me help you with handling techniques and newer front-clip harness styles. In some cases, I can help you properly acclimate your dog to a head halter as a temporary aid. Not all dogs will wear a head halter comfortably so it’s not a frequent choice.
I love the communication power of clicker training. I was one of those kids who grew up wanting to talk to animals. With the clicker, I am so close because I can see the animals change their behavior as if in conversation: “Is this it? What if I do this?” Do you have to love clicker training? Nope. It’ll still work and it’s so fast and effective that we won’t be using it for long on any one particular behavior. Don’t get hung up on the clicker, though — it’s just a tool to help us more clearly mark behavior we want to see more of.
See more articles to be added to the Training Tips section. Feel free to contact me for further clarification. I’ve been training a long time and I’ve put a lot of thought into how to treat your best friend.
What’s Your Guiding Principle?
Have you thought about this? There are a lot of theories and ideas about dog training floating around. Which one(s) guide your approach? For better or worse, you get to pick because it’s your dog. You don’t have to choose my principles, but you really do need to understand what you’re doing and why. There is no law that says you have to believe what other people tell you. Once you have your philosophy defined, examine each underlying belief. Ask yourself, “Is that true? Can I absolutely know that my belief is true?” More importantly, “How do I behave when I believe that principle? What would I do differently without that belief?” (From Loving What Is by Byron Katie.)
For example, when I believe the dog is always doing what she’s supposed to be doing, I do not take it personally when things do not go my way. “Wow, she thinks that trash is available for her perusal when it’s at her nose height.” With a clear mind, I am able to identify the missing skill(s) and make plans to teach my dog to stay back (or move the trash) with zero angst about it. I behave as a leader should.
Pets are animals we have as our friends. Is that true?