It seems that no matter where I turn these days, there are people telling me how to train my dog. Television programs run at all hours of the day and night with various experts telling me how to get my canine companion under control. A trip to the bookstore offers a dazzling array of books on how train my dog, from well-worn titles dating back 20 years or more to modern texts, some offered by those same television experts. All of it is aimed at helping me get my dog to just behave.
If you’re like me and the vast majority of the dog-loving world, you grew up believing that the primary function of dog training – in fact your whole relationship with your dog – was getting her behaviour under control, so you attempt to control or manipulate your dog in order to get what you want, usually to make life with your dog a bit easier to manage.
When I discovered Clicker Training (and the technology and science that supports it) in 2002, it fundamentally changed how I viewed my relationship with dogs and how I approached the first eight weeks of raising my new puppy.
It was no longer about controlling my dog’s behaviour, but about communicating with my dog to help her learn the behaviours I prefer. That may sound like a subtle and esoteric difference, but when you translate it to everyday life I think it becomes profound. It quite literally changed my way of being present with my dog.
Let’s look at how many dog owners approach bringing a new dog into their homes. They seem to look at their precocious new pup as a cute, fluffy harbinger of chaos, chocked full of behaviours that need to be stopped. Peeing on the carpet? No! Chewing on the slipper? No! Hopping up on the sofa? No! Sniffing at the counter in the kitchen? No! Life becomes a quest to be vigilant enough to catch the dog at the moment she does something wrong. It’s a quest to control the dog.
Do these owners communicate with their dogs? Sure they do. They yell (“No!”), they poke, they shove, and even use a leash to pull their dog from off-limits items before they can chew on them or sniff them.
But are they communicating or controlling behaviour? It seems to me all this “No!” business is more about stopping the behaviour – any communication that happens is a by-product, just something that the dog might attend to the next time she find herself in that situation. Maybe.
But what if you turn that around and try to communicate things you want your dog to do before you get into a situation where you have to stop a behaviour? Let’s see how this different approach might look in a real life. If your goal is communicating what you want your dog to do, you should have a good idea of what that looks like. Unfortunately, you can’t just explain what you want or demonstrate it by pointing or acting it out – you’re not a dog after all!
Let’s look at an example:
Let’s say you are concerned your dog might end up chewing something you don’t want her to chew on. Your first job as a communicator is to know what to communicate. Here you have a choice to make: You can tell your dog what is not okay and say “not that”, or you can tell her what is ok and say “this!”
An effective communicator will simply teach the dog what he or she wants to dog to do, since listing all the unacceptable things takes a long time. It is far simpler to say, “This is the thing you should chew on” rather than following the dog around saying “not that….not that…not that.” When you recognize your dog is looking for something to chew, give your dog the correct item to chew. Chew THIS.
This approach does, however, require some thinking and planning. If you’re going to show your dog what you want, you need to be clear in your own mind about what the proper behaviour looks like. You also need to be prepared to reward that behaviour when you see it. And, of course, you need to actually be watching for it so you know when it’s time to reward.
The obvious question is: what happens if you don’t have time to work with your dog? You can’t follow your dog around all the time, ready to drop a life lesson on him at any given moment. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. A good training plan with proven techniques can simplify teaching even the most complicated behaviours.
Clicker Training provides an easy-to-understand process anyone can use. It’s simple, based in the science of behaviour, easy to understand and easy to do. It’s also a very flexible way to train and takes minutes, not hours, every day to get results. Most importantly, it gets you thinking about what you want your dog to do and shows you how to teach her to do it correctly in a fun and rewarding way.
Interestingly, it turns out that learning something new can actually be physically taxing on a dog. The mental exercise will tire your dog out as surely as going to the park for a run. So making some time each day to work with your dogs on learning can go a long way to giving her an outlet for some of her energy.
The benefits of being a proactive communicator do not stop there. Regular learning sessions can build a bond of trust between a dog and her human, especially if there are lots of rewards (e.g., treats or play) involved.
The consistent success of learning what to do (as opposed to what not to do) can help your dog be more confident, not just in her owner but in the world at large.
Your dog will look forward to learning what works as opposed to being continually surprised by what she has inadvertently done wrong. The result is a happy dog who is eager to engage the world with her human partner, rather than a wary dog wondering when the next thing they do will be punished.
When it comes down to it, the dog owner who wants to be a good communicator and wants to teach his or her dog is, in fact, concerned with controlling behaviour. But that control comes as a by-product of all the learning that has been shared with the dog. Instead of a quest to catch your dog doing something wrong, you are instead taking the time to show your dog how to be right. You become more of a partner to your dog.
The result is that days become full of little successes instead of little failures. And you are no longer stopping behaviours you didn’t want. Those behaviours are, instead, replaced by learned behaviors requiring less vigilance and only a bit of communication for your dog to be right. You can now enjoy your time with your dog and look forward to new things to learn together.
Chewing shoe © Flickr
“Paula” Platinatore @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Badboy: Francisco M. @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.