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.

It's All "Training"

Many trainers attempt to make a distinction between "obedience" and "behavior modification". They'll say that "commanding" a dog is not the same thing as teaching a dog how to "be". To me, that's like saying it's acceptable to expect a kid to do calculus or read Shakespeare before teaching them arithmetic or their ABCs. 

I think this problem with vernacular occurs due to the way obedience is commonly taught these days. When a dog is taught to do things because they benefit him, seemingly independent from the handler, both obedience and behavior are addressed at the same time, self-confidence grows, and dedication to doing the right thing increases. This is very different from the bribery based, overly exciting, micromanagement training which really amounts to "tricks" or "helicopter parenting", not "obedience". 

Where I get hung up is when the assertion is made that telling the dog what he should do means that he's not learning to do for himself. Giving good advice early on, and showing the dog that following that advice has intrinsic value to him, helps inform future decisions without intervention from the handler later on. It also makes it a heck of a lot easier for the dog to understand what is expected of them. That clarity means more to a dog than anything else in this world.

There's something to be said for discovery learning... But I feel much better about pouring metal, that's already been treated to be malleable, into a mold than I do hammer forging it by beating out the kinks: wrong, wrong, right, wrong, wrong, wrong rings the hammer... Figuratively of course (or at least hopefully...). I don't want my dog to have to guess their way through every situation. It creates way more potential for things to go wrong. And if you are going to correct the dog when they make incorrect choices, don't you think it's more fair to give them as much information as possible to help them make an informed decision? Then, as they demonstrate better independent decision making, additional freedom is given. Confidence and dedication to right action grow rapidly, and we have far less set backs.

This is what good training does: creates a dog that is more open to change because we've created a true line of communication between the dog and handler, and made the handler relevant as a guide, mentor, and advocate in the dog's life. Not relevant because they have a pocket full of yum-yum... Relevant because situations were engineered to allow the dog to prove to himself that the handler gives good advice and that conducting himself in a certain way is beneficial, independent of the handler. You've shown the dog in a methodical manner that they are capable of doing things even they didn't know they could do, and then show them the extra freedom and independence that comes with it.

The distinction between the two, as described by a trainer to me recently was "do you want a nice dog or a trained dog". Who wouldn't want both? I like my dogs to just do the right thing. But if they are about to make a mistake or I can see a danger that they do not, I want to know they trust me enough to follow my advice too.

A Different Kind of Training Company

A few months ago I began thinking about starting a new training company. Having spent the last four years training dogs, working with and learning from a number of trainers, I felt that there was one thing missing from many training offerings: an all encompassing training program that focuses on the end result, not a pre-set number of sessions. Most of the time, you pay for a specific number of sessions, and once the scheduled training is over, it's over. There is little follow up from the trainer, and if for some reason you and your dog worked really hard but didn't quite get where you wanted to be, what happens then? You have to pay, again, to get more time and practice.

Well I don't think that is how training should happen. I think if you pay for a class or a training program, you should get to continue working until you meet the goals that you had at the beginning of that program.  With this in mind, I created Baltimore Dogworks, and included options for unlimited sessions to meet program goals in each of the programs. What does this mean? It means that if we need some extra time together to meet your goals you won't be nickel and dimed for it.  And once you're done with your core training, we have maintenance options that are so inexpensive, while providing so much value, that they're hard to turn down. And if you do just want to address a few minor things, we can do that too.

I do hope that you will join us and allow us to help you with your dog.  As long as you are committed to them, Baltimore Dogworks is committed to you.