personal development

Problems? Or Opportunities?

When you are out on a walk with your dog, do they have little quirks that seem to come out? For one of my dogs, Arya, it was any change in the surface we were walking on, particularly metal. Every time we would come up to a metal grate or manhole cover on the sidewalk, she would make an extra effort to avoid walking over the surface. This is a confidence issue, plain and simple. Further, it indicates a scenario where the dog would rather transition to being defensive, instead of comfortable, where we ideally want them to be.  

In order to teach her to be accepting of the surface, I restricted her options every time we were met with a metal surface on our walks. As we would move toward the grate or metal cover, I would shorten the leash and apply gentle pressure to her collar to restrict the directions she could move.  I didn't drag or force her. I just calmly and gently confirmed for her that to move forward, her only option was over the grate. At first, just putting one foot on the grate was enough for me to release the tension on the leash and then we'd move around. After a few reps, she was going over these grate hurriedly but completely. On the next walk and with a bit of review, we were able to walk over them calmly.  And lastly, we started practicing sit-stays for short periods of time.

Running into a situation like this while you are out with your dog might not seem like a big deal.  But these little moments add up.  Every time you allow your dog to take the easy route, you are limiting an opportunity to build trust with you and self-confidence in the dog.  As with everything else in training, follow through is the number one most important factor in your relationship with your dog.  You have to be believable.  If surface changes are nothing to worry about, Arya needed to believe me, and that meant showing her that we could walk over them together. It's creating a mild stressor, that the dog can overcome, and continually building on that success until it's no longer a problem.

We do this in our own lives too. We allow ourselves to just side step small things, avoiding a task (however minimal), uncomfortable conversation, etc., until we have a much larger issue. For me, it's diet. I know what I should eat, but don't, even though the amount of effort it would take to make that change is relatively small on a daily basis. I don't even have to cook, just make a better choice.

So if there is that one house with the barking dog in the window that sets your dog on fire, that one bush that always has a bird in it that the dog wants to hunt... Take some extra time to work through those moments.  Be careful to go in bite sized chunks, treat genuine effort as success, and not to over pressure your dog.  But take the time.  A 10 minute walk and 20 minutes working on an issue like this does your dog FAR more good than mindless trucking down the street for a half hour. These moments... they are not problems.  They are opportunities to resolve behavior issues, solidify obedience, build trust and self-confidence, and show your dog that you are every bit of the leader, teacher, advocate, and cheerleader that they need in their life. All those little wins add up to better habits and better self-esteem.


Being Believable

The number one, most important thing you can do for your dog is to be trustworthy. Trust is built over time by showing your dog that they can count on you to act in a way that is appropriate and reliable in every situation. Have you ever noticed that a person that has to tell people to "trust me" is NEVER very trustworthy? This is because trust is not something bought and sold through lip service.  It's held in equity and built over time by performing actions that make small deposits in the "trust" account.

After starting with the assumption that you are not putting your dog in situations that are way over their head, there are three key elements to building trust with your dog, and responsibility in them:

  1. Be believable in your response to things your dog does right
  2. Be believable in your response to things your dog does wrong
  3. Be consistent in 1 and 2

Whatever response you provide your dog when they do things you like should be genuine from you and valuable to the dog. The same goes for when they do something you don't like.  How can you clearly qualify the two? A calm tail wag, eye contact, taking food rewards, and movement toward you are all good indicators that the feedback you are giving your dog is well received. And if you are trying to address an incorrect behavior, immediate cessation of that undesirable behavior is a pretty good indicator that you were clear in your communication that what they were doing was not appreciated. This doesn't mean that you reward a behavior or correct a behavior once and it will never come up again, but you should be able to clearly qualify your reward or correction as effective based on the feedback your dog gives you.

There's an underlying issue of magnitude in your responses as well.  If you lavishly reward something that took minimal effort, expect your dog to feel what they did to earn it sufficient in all situations moving forward.  Likewise, how you address a dog popping up out of a sit should be probably be an order of magnitude less than how you handle some more serious infraction.

Lastly, it's rarely necessary (and often counterproductive) to provide negative or positive feedback that is high in intensity, provided that you are adhering to good training principles like thresholds (a topic for another post).  In places where most folks would raise their voice or alter their pitch, all that is usually needed is more follow through (which amounts to more patience) in their response rather than more exaggeration.

Be the person your dog can believe in. Consistency and reliability in your thoughts, emotions, and actions will create consistency and reliability in your dog.