Figure Out What You Want!
We’ve talked about trainERS; what we do, and how to find a good one. Now let’s talk a bit about trainING.
There’s so much conflicting and contradictory information out there that muddies the waters around dog training. But ultimately, there’s only one question you need to answer: what do you want from your dog? And when you know the answer, the waters become a lot clearer. And there’s only one rule to be aware of when you set out to start training your dog: that the one thing guaranteed to set them up for failure, and for future unwanted behaviours, is to try and teach them as if they were a human child. The only similarity between the two is the results of permissiveness: spoiled, entitled individuals. As a former obedience competitor said to me recently on a Pack Walk, “Dog training’s gone soft.” I have to agree with this. And although I’m not fond of child-rearing / dog-training analogies, there are some that cannot be denied. As a child, I was taught, “You look with your eyes, not with your hands,” and that if I wanted to pet someone’s dog I was to ask permission politely and if the owner said, “No,” that was the end of the matter. No offence was taken if they did, nor explanation demanded. Just as we now have a couple of generations of spoiled, entitled adults and children, we also have a generation of spoiled, entitled dogs. And a spoiled, entitled dog is far more dangerous than a spoiled, entitled human.
When it comes down to it, most of us have a very simple check-list of what we want from our dog: that it comes when called, walks nicely on leash, doesn’t nip or bite, doesn’t jump up, stays out of the trash, and doesn’t react inappropriately to other dogs, people or situations. All of these goals are easily achievable with the help of a good trainer, who will show you how to form habits that mean you are constantly training your dog, even when you’re unaware that you are. Practice, after all, makes perfect.
And since we’ve used the word “perfect”, let’s also use the word, “expectations”. Your dog is a living, breathing thing, with a mind and personality of its own, not forgetting the all-important genetics and instinct. There will be days when your dog seems to decide he doesn’t want to listen, no matter how much work you have put in. There will be days when you wish you had a film crew following you around, so exemplary is his behaviour. Either way, be consistent in what you do and don’t beat yourself up when you have an off day.
To clear the waters even further, let’s have a look at some of the simple mistakes you may be making, that are scuppering your training efforts:
If you’re constantly correcting your dog, you’re not correcting – you’re nagging. Make consequences clear, and meaningful to the dog. If the dog’s behaviour continues, the consequences weren’t meaningful enough to it. Either that, or the behaviour is in some way being reinforced. Constant correction agitates your dog because they’re always living in expectation.
Correcting or punishing emotionally instead of methodically
I recently saw someone “correcting” the dog they were handling, for lunging at another dog. They marked the behaviour with correct timing with a, “No!”, but at that point it all went south. The, “No!” wasn’t firm and emotionless. It was shouted, and showed the handler’s frustration. What followed, poor vocals aside, should have been a brief, appropriate and meaningful ramification for the dog, methodically and efficiently applied, and then for the handler and dog to carry on with their walk as normal. Instead, the handler repeated the, “No!” in an angry voice, at least two more times, and tugged ineffectually on the dog’s leash, giving what they though was a “leash pop”; it wasn’t. Given the nature of the dog concerned, this had no effect whatsoever except to ramp up its behaviour, because it had no idea what it had done wrong at this point. As expected, it turned and redirected its frustration at the handler. It wasn’t a bite, but it was a warning snap. Remember: communication has to be clear, consistent and methodical so that the dog understands what is being taught.
Inappropriate praising and unwittingly reinforcing unwanted behaviours
We all see it, all the time. The owner with the reactive dog, standing to the side of the path with it straining at a taut lead (invariably a Flexi Lead and/or a harness!), petting it and telling it in a worried, uncertain voice, “Good boy, good boy!” as it stares down the dog walking past, ready to lunge and snarl at it as soon as its owner’s focus isn’t 100%.
I can hear you now! “I don’t understand, Nicky! In your previous video, you told us to praise more!”. And I did; you’re absolutely right! And you should – in an appropriate manner, with appropriate timing. Remember: praise (including petting your dog) reinforces a behaviour, so the owner praising and petting his dog for targeting another, has just rewarded the very behaviour he seeks to extinguish. The owner no doubt believes they are reassuring their dog. Trust me; if your dog is being reactive – irrespective of whether it’s through fear or genuine aggression – reassurance is the last thing it needs. It needs you to let it know, in no uncertain terms, that you are taking care of the situation. Instability and weakness are not permitted in packs of animals because they compromise the pack’s safety and integrity. Dogs understand this and modify their behaviour accordingly, so you need to communicate this to your dog in the same way another dog would.
So, before you praise or pet your dog, look at what they are doing. Is it something you want them to do? If yes, then go right ahead. If no, then keep your lip zipped and your hands off! Dogs are not young children; for dogs, reassurance is given through strong leadership and guidance, not baby talk and petting. Give your dog what they need, not what you think they need.
When you first start training your dog there will, of course, be a multitude of armchair experts only too willing to give you their 2 cents. So let’s address some common training myths you’ll no doubt be hearing from those well-meaning dog park aficionados:
“Take your dog’s food away from them while they’re eating, to establish yourself as the pack leader” There is absolutely no need for this. Please don’t do it. All it does is cause your dog to distrust you because it cannot be left to eat in peace. If you want a dog whose food you can take from it whenever you need to, teach a reliable “Out”, so that the food is surrendered.
“He’ll grow out of it” Whether this is nipping and play-biting, inappropriate chewing, or toileting in the house, the answer is no, he won’t. Behaviours that are left unchecked grow stronger as the dog grows older. This is why shelters are full of dogs that have been surrendered due to behavioural issues. Training is the only solution to unwanted behaviour – so get your pup started on their training as soon as possible.
“If your dog has an accident in the house, rub their nose in it”
There are a number of reasons why this is pointless (not to mention highly unpleasant, and possibly frightening, for a puppy). Firstly, a dog is not able to understand why you are rubbing his nose in the mess. So, unless you caught the dog in the act, firmly but calmly told them, “No,” and then took them outside to do their business, there is no point in punishing, no matter how upset you may feel (remember: punishment must be methodical, not emotional). Instead, teach your puppy what you want from them. Be clear, consistent, and timely in their toileting routine. Don’t just throw open the back door and leave them to it. Show your dog what you want, and praise them when they do it.
“Correcting or punishing your puppy is cruel and abusive, and will make them distrust you and/or become aggressive” One hundred per cent wrong. Appropriately and correctly applied punishment will do no such thing. We all learn through consequences. Every living thing. Teaching through a combination of motivation, reward, and consequence provides clarity, balance, and boundaries. Boundaries keep dogs safe. A safe dog is a happy, calm, and stable dog.
“Positive Only / “Force Free” is the only way to train because it’s humane and compassionate”
First, let’s clear the whole “Force Free” thing up. There’s no such thing. As soon as you put a leash on a dog you are using force. Using leash pressure, which is one of the first things we teach to dogs when we put a leash and collar on them, is applying force. Using spatial pressure to encourage a dog to do something (just as dogs do to one another), is using force. But the word “Force”, just like the word “Punishment” has now been hijacked and is being used as a pejorative by people who are unable to understand simple dictionary definitions. If you’re working with a trainer who is this confused when it comes to simple words and their meanings, my advice to you would be to find a less confused trainer. As an example, I saw a post from a dog trainer on social media the other day that proclaimed his methods to be “humane” because they are “force free”. Keeping a dog safe by giving it rules, boundaries, and clear communication doesn’t make a trainer “inhumane”. Using contingent punishment to teach a dog not to do something that could cause death or injury to it or others, is not inhumane. In fact, it’s the opposite. Remember: freedom comes with rules.
And always keep in mind: if there’s something you’re not sure about, ask your trainer. That’s what we’re here for!