A trainer friend, Ginger Alpine (Fortunate Fido) said this years ago and it’s stuck with me. “Training isn’t something we do to our dogs. It’s something we do with them.” I love Ginger’s wisdom. And, I love how clearly and succinctly these two sentences define training as a process in which we and our dogs are full and equal participants. It’s not me versus him; it’s both of us working together.
Training – Teaching – Learning – It “isn’t something we do to our dogs” Here’s what else I love about this saying. There’s no time limit implied. We don’t do it and we’re done. We are freed from the finality of time-based questions about dog training. How long does it take? How much time will I have to spend? When will it end? These are not the kinds of questions we ask about other things we enjoy like hiking or dancing or playing a musical instrument. I, for example, enjoy running (I know not everyone does). How long does it take? Well, as long as I want – a long time if I’m lucky – and long into my old age if I’m really lucky and take care of myself.
Training, specifically reinforcement-based training, is how we learn to communicate with our dogs. Strip the goals away for now. Sit, down, jump through a hoop – yes, all that will come. But look with me for a moment at this as “something we do with” our dogs. When we are training we are in partnership, connected, and engaged with each other in problem solving and task building. We get to stop everything else and keenly observe our dog, see what it is she is actually about, what she actually does in this world. We guide her and provide feedback. And guess what? She’s observing us, paying attention to nothing else at times, noticing our moves, adjusting hers in kind, and giving us feedback as well. It’s give-and-take. It’s process. It’s what we do with our dogs.
If we love our dogs, how can we not love doing things with them? I’m still grappling with that question, and may my whole life. Maybe it’s the “something we do to them” part that gets in our way. Maybe when we frame training as a chore that needs to get done, we freeze up. I can assure you, I’m no fan of chores either. And what if we can’t get the chore completed? How frustrating is that? I wonder what would happen if we kept stripping away the goals and set aside the are-we-done-yet part. What if training was like play – hiking – dancing – making music. What if we could think of this time with our dog not as a chore but as a fun conversation with her? I love a good chat, sometimes spirited, occasionally challenging, often just calm and relaxed.
What if that’s what training is? What if it’s the time we get to spend with our dogs – not the time we have to spend? What if the goal isn’t the thing – what if the thing itself is the thing – the process – that conversation between two species? What if we’ve been missing the point all along? Yes, we will get our sits, and downs, and she’ll jump that hoop. But next time you join your dog in training (today I hope), watch how she moves. Look at the expression on her face. My guess is you’ll see joy. And my further guess is that the joy has little to do with accomplishing goals. She’s happy to see you. She’s happy to be with you. She’s happy to have this time with you.
What are we doing? That doggy grin. What are we learning today? That full-butt tail wag. What does it matter? This is the best part of my day – the best part of my tomorrow – and every day – with you. Let’s do this.
A group class is a wonderful place to bring your puppy for multiples reasons. The biggest reason is socialization. Second on the list is learning in an environment that has distractions. Third up is the development of your pup’s play skills. Last, but definitely not least is bite inhibition.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Socialization – Puppies go through what is referred to as the critical socialization period between the ages of 8-16 weeks. During this time it’s crucial to get them out to help them build positive associations with the things that they will encounter in every day life.
To build positive associations all you need to do is give your pup some treats a second or two after something new appears. Give those treats the entire time the new thing is there and once the new thing is gone, stop treating. It won’t take long for him to realize that people, dogs, surfaces, loud trucks, going into buildings, being handled and examined all predict awesome stuff. Once that clicks, your pup will enjoy all of those things.
It is important to socialize in as many places as possible. Dogs are poor generalizers. (Except they generalize fear well.) They can discriminate that a certain place is awesome and they may enjoy all the people in that place, but they may be fearful of other places and be nervous of people in those places.
Use the location of the group class you join as one place. From there, utilizes pet friendly places like certain hardware stores and ice cream parlors. (You’ll even want to do lots of happy visits at your vet’s office and at your groomer’s.) This will set him up to be a behaviorally sound adult dog.
Distractions- Life is full of distractions. In reality, these distractions are what we refer to as “competing motivators.” These are just other things in the environment that your pup wants to interact with. If you want him to be able to do behaviors while out and about, it’s important to practice out and about.
The main issue that people have when they’re out in public with their pup is that he has trouble staying focused. If he sees something that he wants it’s naturally going to motivate him to do a behavior in hopes to get to interact with it. That’s often where barking, pulling on leash and not coming when called come from.
One of the best places to start is a group setting. In the group setting he will be around lots of other people and puppies. You will get lots of practice and coaching from your trainer on how to get him to do the behaviors. This can and will translate to out into the real world, making life easier.
Play skills- These can be developed quite easily at this young age. In a group setting that allows puppy play (look for one that does) your pup will get to learn what is and isn’t appropriate to do to the other pups. If his play gets to look a little questionable then a “consent check” can be done to see whether or not the other pup is enjoying what is happening. This is how he can be coached because if he is removed from play for doing a certain behavior, that behavior should decrease. This is because with consistency he learns that doing that behavior results in the removal of what he wants and enjoys.
Since play is a part of developing play skills, he will be getting a lot of physical exercise. This exercise will come from chasing, being chased, barking, biting, humping, wrestling and rolling around. These are all normal play behaviors.
Bite inhibition- This is something that not everyone knows about. This means your pup learns to control the amount of force/pressure applied during a bite. During a group class he can learn from other pups if he is biting too hard. Usually they learn that they’re biting too hard by an alert that comes in the form of a loud “yelp!” Most puppies hear that yelp and back off.
Puppies play bite. This is beyond normal. A group setting gives them an outlet to play bite and helps teach bite inhibition. This is a win-win.
Searching for the right group class
Now that you have all of that information it’s time to start researching places near you. When searching for a group class you want to ask some questions to ensure you’re going to the right place. Here is a list.
Do the puppies get to interact off leash with one another?
What happens when my puppy does the right behavior?
What happens when my puppy does the wrong behavior?
What type of equipment do you utilize in class? (Avoid any trainers that are recommend the use of choke, prong or shock collars as these types of collars can lead to aggression.)
Do you check vaccination records?
You’re looking for a place that does have off leash puppy play. You want to find a place that focuses on rewarding the pups when they do the right behavior. You want to find a place that doesn’t give any sort of physical correction when the pups do the wrong behavior. You want to find a place that recommends body harnesses or head halters. And lastly, you want to ensure that they do indeed check vaccination records.
Now that you have this list you’re ready to start having some fun training your pup in a group setting. Have fun!
Kevin Duggan is the owner of All Dogs Go To Kevin, which services Northeast Ohio and Eastern Tennessee.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on The Benefits of a Group Setting for Puppies
Life with our dogs can be confusing sometimes. Life in general can be confusing. It’s true. The world is crazy. Our dog seems crazy. Maybe I’m going crazy. He’s growling. I’m yelling. We just want the bad stuff to stop. But, where do we begin?
Where to begin?
I suggest we begin – with wonder. We know there are times when our dog is at his best. There are places in which he is not troubled or troublesome. We know those times and places. Let’s find them. Be still. Be with our dog. Just be.
Let’s start right here, in wonder of all that our dog is. Author Richard Rohr refers wonder as “standing in awe before something.” Can we really do that with our dog? Be right there, for a moment, a short while, aware and in awe.
Our dog thinks. But, what exactly? Let the question roll over you. Rohr also writes about wondering as “standing in the question itself.” We will never know our dog’s thoughts. But we can wonder. That alone could keep me here, contemplating not what my dog is thinking but that she is. And, it’s private.
Our dog feels. Researcher Jaak Panksepp opened that door for us, uncovering the emotional lives of animals. We can watch our dog, whatever she’s doing right now, and we can settle in with the truth that she has feelings. We can imagine those feeling, because we are emotional creatures too. She seeks out things that feel good and avoids things that feel bad. We can relate. We can empathize.
Our dog moves. She is a living being in motion here with us, right now, at this time, in this place. She makes choices and puts those choices in motion (or in stillness). It happens in this space with us fully present. Aware. In Awe.
As I write, I’m looking at my own dog standing in the sunlight. She is looking out at I-don’t-know-what. She is living. Thinking. Feeling. Her ball is on the ground just behind her, a choice for playing a moment ago and perhaps in the moment ahead. But now, in this moment, she is present in the sun and the sound of the wind and the moving leaves and the dappling of light on her face. What is out there? What moves her to this stillness?
Begin with wonder, every day, every new start. We are able to engage with dogs in ways not open to us with most other animals. We can learn to communicate with them. Spend a moment with that idea. It is wonderful – this connection we have – this chance to learn how they interact with us – the chance to teach them our words and phrases. It’s cooperation. It’s learning together. Who cares that I am human and she is dog? How amazing.
Where else to begin now that we know, now that we notice? There is only wonder. They come to us, our dogs, and ask us: Play? Rest? Touch? Eat? They comfort us and turn to us for comfort when they are afraid, or anxious, or sad. They turn to us. Us.
And they are a wonder, these animals who live with us and think their private thoughts. Their feelings, like ours, must run amok at times. Their actions seem to run in kind – amok – but much differently than ours – fully dog. No wonder, really, we get confused. And no wonder they get confused, too, I guess. It’s hard.
But connected we stay, and committed. Life in this human world is crazy enough for us humans. What a mess it must seem to our dogs. It’s a good thing we’re here to see them through it. It’s a good they are here to see us through it.
She’s resting now, almost asleep, the ball and the window and the flicker of sunlight forgotten – so it seems. She’ll dream, eyes flitting under half-opened lids. She always does. There may be muted barks, a twitch, sometimes full kicks of her legs. I’m not allowed to see what she sees. I can’t go with her. I can only watch and wonder. That word again. And awe. That one too.
And on we go. And every day, every moment, we begin again. We are right here. It’s right now. And, yes, every time it takes my breath away.
Hurricane season ends November 30th, and not a moment too soon. This season was particularly brutal, with three major hurricanes hitting U.S. shores in less than a month. The most impactful for us in Houston, of course, was Hurricane Harvey.
The storms this year, and Harvey in particular, got me thinking long term about what we all need to teach our dogs so that we are well prepared for next year’s hurricane season and the ones to follow. These aren’t quick fix tips. This is a training challenge for all of us for the next six-months ahead. What can we do now so that our dogs are best prepared if the worst happens – again?
The Hurricane Dog Training Challenge.
Potty Training. During the many long nights and days of Harvey’s deluge, I got more texts and emails about dogs not wanting to go outside to potty in the rain than any other subject. There were few easy answers at hand. We were in the middle of a crisis, all of us including my dogs and I.
One former client posted this great photo of sod she’d purchased and put under her carport. It’s a great solution if you’d thought of it ahead of time.
I leveraged a cue I’ve taught my dogs: “go outside go potty” to get them revved up and out the door. This rather dark video is an example from Sunday Night in the storm.
The Training Challenge: Retrain Potty training with a cue for going going out. Here’s a link to my potty training handout for your review. And here’s a link to my potty training video. Be sure to add the cue, as I did.
Crate Training. Thousands of dogs (yes thousands) ended up at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. They, along with the other dogs at shelters around the area, were required to be under control and safely confined. Many other dogs were crated as they were rescued from flooded homes and remained in crates for long periods of time.
A disaster should not be the first time our dog has to spend time in a crate. It would be so much better if all our dogs were familiar with their crates as a safe comfortable place for transport – or to just relax (as much as is possible in a hurricane).
The Training Challenge: Teach or Review Crate Training. I used Susan Garrett’s Crate Games to teach my dogs to love their crate. Here’s my short video intro to some Crate Games concepts. And here’s the link to Susan’s excellent DVD.
Leash Walking. I’m the kind of guy who scanned the TV coverage during Hurricane Harvey looking for the dogs. Some didn’t have leashes but most did. Dogs being carried through the flood water dangling a leash. Dogs on leash swimming through the flood water. Dogs leashed up on boats floating through their neighborhood. Dogs in the baskets of helicopters with their humans – leash on collar – the other end wrapped around a tightly clenched fist.
Our dog’s leash should be a comfort line, the symbol of the safe emotional connection between the dog and human. When or if a crisis occurs, the leash is a life line as well – an essential training tool – but also a reminder of the dog’s routine of calm self-control outside the home.
The Training Challenge: Teach our dogs to comfortably wear a harness and walk calmly and confidently on leash. This is my favorite YouTube video for leash walking. It’s by my friend and colleague Kelly Duggan.
Building Trust. I couldn’t imagine getting in a basket dangling from a helicopter. It would be a first-time-ever thing and I doubt any of us have prepared for it. I can’t imagine (as many of you have experienced first hand) coming downstairs from the second floor to get in a canoe and paddle out my front door. What is the training for that? I’ve stayed at hotels with my dogs, but never in a shelter with 10,000 other people. There are no practice sessions for this either. The idea is surreal for most of us – but each of these situations was all-too-real for a lot of folks and their dogs during Hurricane Harvey.
I’ve listed three specific things above that we can work on to prepare for next hurricane season: potty training, crate training, and leash walking. Think of these Training Challenges as a framework for the much more important overriding project of building trust between us and our dog.
Teach these core values to your dog as a way to build trust and keep communication open on a daily basis.
You (dog) are safe with me. Let’s create situations in which our dog can learn to look to us for direction and support in novel situations (we traditionally call this “training.”) We’ll use nonthreatening and nonviolent methods to achieve this. We’ll also be careful not to lead our dogs intentionally into danger or into situations they perceive as dangerous. We’ll comfort our dogs to help them through situations that are overwhelming, scary, or painful without concern that we are “reinforcing fear.” We aren’t.
Humans are reliable and consistent. We are not, but we can learn to be with our dogs. We don’t threaten and harm them in the name of training one minute and then treat and pet them the next. We reliably and regularly use reinforcement based nonviolent training techniques that encourage our dogs to think and, when in doubt, to look confidently to us for instructions. We don’t stray from this path.
You (dog) can relax with me. Every day, often many times a day, I sit on the floor and do nothing with my dogs. There are no cues (commands) and no expectations. We just hang out. If one of the dogs initiates play, we play. If they want to lie down, we chill. If they approach for some cuddles, I lean in and touch them.
This list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can think of many ways you build trust between you and your dog. I really like Susan Friedman’s video about how teaching and learning can help us build trust with animals. Take a look at it and let me know if you like it too.
Muzzle training. Just a brief note about this. Many of our dogs have a history of biting. Dogs under unique and extreme stress (think Hurricane) are more likely to bite. Let’s continue to build and maintain muzzle training – or start teaching it if we haven’t already. Here’s my favorite muzzle training video by Chirag Patel.
Take The Hurricane Prep Dog Training Challenge. In Houston we’ve had three 500-year floods in the past three years. I don’t think we can say whew I hope that never happens again anymore. It probably will. I hope not, of course. But, the odds don’t seem to be in our favor.
So over the next six months, from now until the beginning of next hurricane season in June, will you join me as we get our dogs ready? Start now. Let me know how you’re coming along. Post your progress on social media with the hashtag #michaelsdogs so I can see it. You can also email me. I love getting video and photos.
I’ll do the same. I’m teaching my dogs all these skills as well and will post regularly to Facebook www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs and Instagram. I’ll try to get more active on Twitter too. Follow along online and look for the #michaelsdogs hashtag.
Let’s do this together. Even if the worst doesn’t happen again (fingers crossed) – we still get a stronger more enjoyable relationship with out dogs out of the deal. And really, how cool is that?
When I was a child I imagined I could communicate telepathically with my dog, Casper. I wanted to know what he was thinking and what he was trying to say to me, so I imagined it. I spent hours with him and told myself stories about what it all meant. There’s a lot of nostalgia there – a boy and his dog. And, if you’re waiting for a “but,” there isn’t one.
This is what we humans do. We tell stories, all 7.4 billion of us. There isn’t a human being on the planet who doesn’t speak and think in at least one language. We think in words and words are what fill our brains every waking hour and some of our sleeping hours as well. They are powerful things, these wordy thoughts. Powerful good. Powerful bad sometimes, too.
Even now as adults I know we all still create stories about what our dogs are thinking and what they’re trying to say to us. We’re only human, after all. I wrote a blog a few years ago called Positive Thinking – Positive Training about how our thoughts and stories about our dogs can get in the way of good training. We keep tripping over our brains, crowded with words. My dog is jealous of me – My dog thinks he’s alpha – He’s stubborn or defiant. Then we slip and fall into even worse thinking. I need to show him who’s boss – this is hopeless – I can’t anymore.
It’s a curse of being human. We can’t always think our way out of problems, but we can almost always think our way into them. In our worst moments our thoughts spiral and loop back on themselves. We become anxious or depressed. We make bad decisions or become too paralyzed to act. Things get worse.
How can we tame our minds and slow down these damaging thoughts? I mentioned Aaron Beck in my Positive Thinking blog post. He’s credited with pioneering Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a great tool for helping us humans to think better about the stories we tell ourselves. I also recommend the writing of Steven Hayes who developed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which helps us notice thoughts without struggling against them. The book The Happiness Trap is a great introduction to ACT.
And, none of this is new. Buddhist teachers have been helping folks tame their minds for millennia. Mindfulness is something of a catchword these days but it has a deep history. When we are aware and present (mindful) we can see our brain chatter from a different perspective – almost like we’re an observer. Hmm, I’m having some thoughts. Author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön writes about not getting hooked by those thoughts. We notice them, but we don’t engage them – we don’t get sucked into the spiral or the word loop in our heads. How? Meditation.
What does meditation have to do with dog training? Everything. It’s where we practice patiently and gently settling our own minds. Chödrön and others frequently refer to our “monkey brain” – fast moving thoughts coming at us nonstop. The 8th Century Monk, Shantideva, refers to it as the “elephant mind;” the thoughts are sometimes strong and pressing. When we meditate, we are learning to tame our thinking – the fast moving monkey and the pressing elephant. We acknowledge thoughts but then release them. Thinking. There is it. Off it goes. Breathe. We don’t judge. We simply notice and let them go. We then return our focus to our breathing. You’ve heard about breathing in meditation. It keeps us in the present moment. It’s where we put our attention when we feel like we’re getting hooked by a thought or two – or fifty. I highly recommend Chödrön’s book, How to Meditate, for more information.
Here’s how it relates to our work with our dogs. Meditation sessions are brain training. We learn how to see thoughts, many of them potentially damaging, and then set them aside. We don’t get hooked. We don’t act on them. We return to the breathing and relax into the right-now. Later, though, in our daily lives we can use these same skills. In a teaching session with our dog we might have a thought like, oh he’s never going to be able to do this. But, we don’t have to believe it. We don’t have to become paralyzed by it. We’re not hooked. We can notice the thought and then let it go – returning to the present moment with our dog. Yes, we’ll observe our dog’s behavior. And, yes we’ll adjust the learning session to help him succeed with the task at hand (that’s all thinking of a sort). But with our new clearer minds we won’t be stymied by useless or destructive thoughts.
So often in dog training we talk about starting with our own behavior. Our actions affect the choices our dog’s make. Now we’re taking one extra step back to look not just at our actions but our thoughts. Is our wordy brain chatter leading us to poor choices with our dogs? Or, is our clear thinking helping us both? Let’s see our thoughts for what they are. Let’s tame them. Let’s set the ones aside that we don’t need and come back to the ones we do. Let’s think and act better. And breathe. And simply be. Be human with a delightful brain full of stories. But be present and mindful, too. And most certainly, be right here right now in this moment with your dog.
Most dogs are at least mildly afraid of the sound of fireworks. Some are more frightened. A few are downright terrified. No matter where your dog falls on the scale. It’s important to help your dog stay calm and keep him safe.
1. Staying Put. Make sure your dog doesn’t bolt off in terror when the fireworks start popping. July 4th is the single biggest day for dogs going missing (and being found as strays). Some dogs literally can’t find their way home because the run so far in fear. It’s best to make sure your dog is safely confined inside your home (not in the back yard). And keep his collar with current tags on him just in case.
2. Block the Sound. Many dogs do well in an interior downstairs room with carpet. This blunts the sounds from outside. Add some white noise like a fan or music, and you may be good to go. Include your dog’s bed and a nice chew toy or stuffed Kong toy for added comfort. Make sure your dog has peed and pooped before the big fireworks get going. If you need to take him out later, do so on-leash for added safety.
3. Calm from within. Some dogs are inconsolable when it comes to the sound of fireworks. These are also the dogs who often have thunder phobia, too. Your vet can prescribe short acting anti anxiety medication that can definitely help. My dog, Stewie, takes medication for thunderstorms and fireworks. It has no side effects and it helps him a great deal.
Do not take your dog to a fourth of July party or fireworks display with the idea of “getting him used to it.” I’ll be blunt here. It won’t help. In fact it will likely make the problem worse. Better to enjoy the day with your fellow humans – and let your dog chill out as best he can.
Feeding our dogs from enrichment toys, toys that dispense food, can actually make them smarter. It definitely seems to make them happy. Puzzling out the food inspires activity and thought. A lot of trainers liken it to the skills a scavenging dog or a hunting dog would need in order to eat the food they’d found or killed. Other trainers, me included, have noticed that it helps our dogs focus, activating their brains in a way boring bowl feeding simply doesn’t.
It turns out we’re probably right. Animals (and human animals) who successfully learn challenging skills are more likely to be successful at subsequent challenging skills. In other words, succeeding at hard stuff makes us better at doing more hard stuff.
The research actually dates back to the late 1970s. I came across it in Angela Duckworth’s great book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She cites the research of Dr. Robert Eisenberger from the University of Houston. He showed that rats that mastered a complicated task to earn food pellets, pressing a lever multiple times, we able to master subsequent complicated tasks (like running a maze) more easily. In fact they learned new tasks with more vigor and endurance. He ran related studies with children and college students in the 1980s with similar results. Eisenberger called the process Learned Industriousness.
Are our dogs learning to be more industrious because we feed them from food-dispensing toys? I think so. The task-based eating process is similar to what Eisenberger used, teaching the animal to work for the food. It also aligns with what many clicker trainers have observed. Dogs who learn tasks seem to learn how to learn. As they come to understand the process, the learning seems to come faster.
Almost all of my clients report that Mat Work, teaching their dog to lie on a mat, helps the dog become more focused. Mat Work is fairly complicated because it challenges the dog to figure out what do do with the mat (lie down on it) on his own. We don’t provide instructions, only feedback via clicks and treats. It’s a puzzle for the dog to solve. When we set it up properly and provide honest and clear reinforcement the dog figures it out, usually pretty quickly. It’s a hard skill that sets our dog up for more learning – for mastering other hard skills. In the clear light of Eisenberger’s research, all this seems to make more sense now. For a great primer on how Mat Work works, read Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura Van Arendonk Baugh (no relation).
How do we teach our dogs learned industriousness? Let’s start with the toys. There are lots of great food-dispensing toys on the market. For beginners I recommend the Bob-A-Lot (pictured above). It’s perfect for feeding dry food. I’m also a big fan of the KONG Classic, which truly is a classic. Both are available online and at local retailers.
Dog trainers like to say that coming-when-called is an odds game. If you called your dog right now, what are the odds he’d come? Would you place a bet on it? How much. Now, what if your dog was outside, or playing with another dog, or sniffing a lamp post?
Our job, yours and mine, is to stack the odds in our favor, to make it so we’d be willing to place a big bet that our dog will come when we call him every time anytime. Here are the keys.
Use a clear and consistent cue. I say “Stella, come!” (My dog’s name is Stella). I call it in a clear-throated voice, loudly. There’s a bit of lilt and lyricism to the call. It’s strong but not intimidating. I think of coming when called as an invitation not a demand. Avoid having a conversation with your dog. Don’t repeat the cue over and over. Don’t give multiple cues.
Watch to see if your dog moves toward you. As soon as he does, start smiling, and praising him. Cheer him on as he comes to you (but don’t repeat the cue).
Reinforce generously. Use the highest value reinforcer you can think of and give more than one treat (I recommend 3-4 in sequence). Then, if possible return your dog to play or whatever it was he was enjoying before you called him.
Repeat the process often, at different times, and in different places. In the early stages of training (all stages really) help your dog win the game. Set up your training so that he can succeed. I taught Stella coming-when-called using games. The process was fun for both of us, and easy as a result. We also mixed up the games to keep them interesting. I call Stella to me often when she leasts expects it and I reinforce it with a variety of things: food, play, access to fun activities. (See: Psyching Out Your Dog).
Practice throughout your dog’s lifetime to keep the behavior strong. It’s a powerful skill for keeping your dog safe from harm. But really, it’s nice just to show off that your dog is under some sort of control. How cool, right? My bet is that you’re going to love seeing your dog running towards you with that big goofy grin. Yeah, I’d put my money on that any day.
We want stuff fast: food, coffee (definitely coffee), replies to our emails – the faster the better, right? We want to feel better quickly, advance in our careers quickly, stop being sad and get happy – quickly. We’re in a hurry, zipping, weaving, taking short cuts and cutting people off (not you, I know). But here’s the thing about fast. It’s often sloppy. And a lot of the time it actually slows us down when we hurry up.
Here’s my advice, especially when it comes to working with your dog: Slow down. It will help you speed up your training. That’s a great paradox, isn’t it? It’s sort of like jumbo shrimp but, it’s true. If we dial back the rush and get out of our own way (and our dog’s way) we can actually step up the rate of our success.
We’re all guilty of this (me too). We want to teach a task, let’s say coming when called, and it feels like we’re on some sort of time crunch. So, we do two or three reps with our dog in the house and we get bored. Let’s go to the dog park and practice there. We call and call and call and she doesn’t come. Then we get frustrated. This isn’t working. We blame the dog. But, it’s not her fault. We’re rushing.
Here’s how you really speed things up. Break down all your training goals into small steps. For coming when called we may begin by reinforcing our dog for looking when we call her name – just a look (click/treat). Then we build to her coming short distances inside – then longer distances – then out in the back yard – and so on.
We do this when we teach our dog to lie on a mat. We reinforce her for looking at it, then stepping towards it, then stepping on it, then sitting, then lying. Those are all small steps with clicks and treats along the way. We could actually break down the steps even smaller to progress even quicker. That’s how you can train your dog to lie on mat in a matter of days – sometimes faster.
Breaking the task down may seem cumbersome and even boring. But, don’t be fooled. The key is to keep the process moving forward. As our dog masters each small task, we advance to the next one. Let’s not go too slowly and get stuck reinforcing one step for too long. But, let’s not move too fast and leave our dog in the dust either. Better to stay mindful and keep our dog (and ourselves) engaged and progressing. We can move very quickly that way.
Okay, but what if training falls a part and our dog just isn’t getting it? Tap the breaks. Go back to an earlier easy step at which your dog was successful. Jump start the process. Show her how to win again. Motor forward. Before long you’re building some speed once more.
Breaking things down as a key to winning is not a new concept. Trainer educator Laura Van Arendonk-Baugh (no relation) talks about it a great deal in her book, Fired Up Frantic and Freaked Out. Clicker training is all about teaching skills quickly (sometimes very quickly) in incremental steps. It works well for us humans too. Psychologist Angela Duckworth researches grit, that human quality that keeps us passionate and persistent in our life goals. She’s found that the grittiest of very successful people split their big goals in to many smaller ones. They thin-slice tasks and push speedily towards their own personal finish lines. I highly recommend Duckworth’s book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Now a quick note about urgent dog behavior matters, the ones in which people and other dogs might be in danger. Dog who bite need to stop biting, right now. The same is true of dogs who might be a danger to themselves. We can take action to prevent dangerous behavior that can stem the problem right away. Baby gates, closed doors, leashes, and such all play a role. That kind of management of our dog’s environment is, in fact, essential. It’s an quick fix but, still, it’s not sufficient.
Training and behavior change plans complete the story. Can we teach our dogs to behave differently (better)? Yes, of course. Can we do it quickly? Yes, if we’re willing to slow down. When create a plan that breaks our big objective down into smaller ones, we speed up the process – one task at a time – one win at a time. All the while we are narrowing the distance to our goal, faster than we might have ever imagined.
We are under pressure. Our dog’s behavior is dangerous. We need to change it. We’re in a hurry. We have no time. The only comfort we have, if there is any to be found, is that we are not alone. So many of us taking on complicated dog behavior problems get tripped up. We flail and sometimes feel like we are drowning in despair.
You might have guessed by now that I’m not talking about that shallow in-and-out that keeps us upright. It’s not the gasping and sighing we do while we prattle off commands to our dogs either. No, I’m talking about mindful breathing. It’s the take-a-breather, focus on your body, draw it in, let it out slowly, stay in the moment kind of breathing. Breathe. Notice your lungs pulling in the air. Relax your belly, then fill your chest. Pay attention while you let it out.
This is the breathing you’ve done in yoga class, or at least tried. It’s the foundation of meditation. It’s part of prayer and contemplation in every religion (the root of the word “spirit” is breath). Breathing, real attentive breathing is at the heart of who we are as humans. It certainly plays a role in our relationship and our ability to communicate with our dogs. Here’s how.
Breathe to prepare your mind for teaching your dog. Take five minutes. Sit quietly and focus on the in and out of your breath. This is a simple and short meditation. That word scares some people, I know. Breathe. You know how to do it. In. Out. The idea is to focus on one thing for a short period of time. Your breathing. You’re breathing.
I sometimes cheat. My focus becomes watching my dog as I breathe. There is no talking, simply observing and breathing. I’ve caught Stella looking back at me and we’ve held that observant vigil for minutes on end – long enough for me to get lost in it, awakened only by the tear tracking down my cheek. (I’m a sap, it’s true). Watch. Breathe.
Breathe while you teach. So much of what you and I are doing with our dogs is about modeling calm behavior. Mindful breathing helps us do that. Focus on the process of training, yes. Observe your skills and how they affect your dog’s behavior in the learning session, definitely. But, don’t forget to breathe. That remembrance will keep you connected to your body and your mind space. Are you tense? Are you losing patience? Are you okay? Take care of yourself. The teaching and learning will come more easily if you breathe.
I sometimes take a mini-breather while training. It’s easy to do when switching between exercises. I especially like to do that if I’m going to transition from clicker training to a play break. Remembering what I’m doing and breathing through it helps me smile in learning sessions. That keeps me connected to my dog and the work we’re doing together. It fuels the fun and the joyful praise in the moment.
Breathe in the space in between. So often we are caught in the illusion that learning and teaching are only things that happen in “sessions.” Take just a second, or a minute, or two. Then take a breath. Look at your dog. Is she looking back? Raise your eyebrows and say “hello.” It’s such a powerful moment. If she comes to you, pet her. Let everything else that is happening fall away (It will be there when you get back). Breathe through this experience with your dog.
Not just sometimes, but every day I sit on the floor with my dogs and let them come to me. I don’t talk. I breathe with them, and touch, and nuzzle. I do this even after very long days with everyone else’s dogs. It connects me to Stella and Stewie. It also reminds me of how I’m connected to my clients – all dealing with the stressors and the drama life – none of us really alone – keeping our heads above water. All of us, when we can, remembering to breathe.