Training a dog can seem like a terribly complex task. The sheer number of books, articles, techniques, approaches, and methods available can seem daunting to even experienced dog owners. There was a time when I felt overwhelmed by all of that information and at a loss to know which methods were the best ones for me and my dog. But learning about behavioural science and about the science of dogs changed all of that. I was quite surprised that most of what we know about dog training can be explained by some simple principles. If I applied them with some understanding, those principles would take my training farther than I could have imagined and they would help me create the most rewarding relationships I have ever had with my dogs.
What I have not said is that it was easy. Sometimes the simple things can be the most difficult to do well. Much of what I learned about dogs and behavioural science required that I think differently about my dogs. My whole approach to training had to shift from “getting what I wanted” to “teaching and motivating my dog effectively.” I always had to keep in mind how my dog was viewing the situation both literally and subjectively. Were they understanding me? Were they frustrated? Were they still interested in learning? Simple concepts but not easy to keep in mind at first.
Some years ago I read a number of books about the religions and philosophies of Asia and the Far East. Taoism, Buddhism, Zen, and others offered me a very different view of living from what my upbringing in North America had provided me. Suddenly, my transition from traditional dog training to training based on science very much reminded me of that cultural difference between Eastern and Western culture. If there were a “Zen and the Art of Dog Training”, what would it look like? Remarkably, I didn’t need to go very far to find out. I only had to refresh my reading to find some Zen sayings that neatly captured the essences of how I work with my dogs today.
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Zen teacher Ram Dass
When I first read books and articles about mark and reward training using a clicker, the instructions were clear that I was to keep as still as possible and not speak to my dog. I was to let her learn and offer only as much guidance as she required to learn what I was trying to teach. I was amazed at how quickly my 11 week old puppy learned not one or two but at least 12 behaviours in a matter of weeks. By the time she was 6 months of age, my dog knew more than 25 distinct behaviours that I could cue with either words or hand signals. But my most important discovery was not how fast a dog can learn. By keeping myself quiet, I learned to observe her body language. I discovered how to know if my dog was bored, tired, interested, frustrated, excited, or confused. By staying quiet I had allowed myself to really see my dog and to understand a great deal more about what she was telling me during our training time.
“The greatest effort is not concerned with results.” – Atisha (11th century Tibetan Buddhist master)
One of the hardest things for me to learn in changing how I trained was letting go of what I wanted. Mark and reward training taught me that the process is more important than the results. If I wanted my dog to “sit”, there were any number of methods I could use to get my dog to put her bottom on the floor. Some might achieve the goal of getting my dog’s bottom on the floor more quickly than others but each method would bring its own emotional side effects to the process. If I focused on just results, I might not fully understand what a particular method was doing to my dog’s perceptions. How would it change how she felt about training? About me? About our relationship? About working with me in general? It quickly became clear that my dog’s attitudes and emotions were more important to me than just getting a result. It was more important to me that she would happily and eagerly perform a “sit” than how quickly I could get her to do the action regardless of the consequences.
Behavioural science showed me that learning doesn’t come in big chunks but often in small, incremental pieces. No one can take lessons in designing large office buildings without first learning the basics of math, physics, and science. The same is true when teaching our dogs. To our human brains, things like “sit” or “stay” or “come” seem very simple requests. But our dogs are an entirely different species with a different brain and an entirely different set of biological priorities. Animal trainer Bob Bailey has said that an animal can be trained to do anything of which it is physically capable. But we might not be able to teach it all at once, regardless of the training methods we choose to use. Mark and reward training taught me that setting small, achievable goals keeps my dog motivated and eager to learn. By systematically increasing what I was expecting in order to earn the reward, I could teach even complex behaviours quickly and keep my dog eager and happy to play the training game.
“Do not speak – unless it improves on silence.” – Buddha
As teachers for our dogs, we want them to succeed. But sometimes, like over-eager parents, we want to help them get it “right” when we are training. Following what I was reading of mark and reward training, I tried to use as few physical and verbal prompts as possible when teaching a behaviour and to fade out those “helpful” guides as quickly as I could without losing understanding or behaviour from my dog. But often, it was necessary to find something to help my dog understand what it was I was trying to teach her. This was when it was important to carefully consider what I would add to our training to help her understand. It was important because anything I added – words or gestures or objects – to help her do the behaviour would eventually need to be removed again without losing that understanding. I had to be careful in my choices so that whatever I brought in to help could be easily removed again and not disrupt the learning process. In short, I learned to only prompt my dog as much as I needed and to understand the wisdom that “less is more” is not just a saying. Sometimes “helping” is not helping and the best thing I can do is nothing at all.
“Do not seek to follow the footsteps of those who came before you, seek what they sought.” – Matsuo Basho (17th century Japanese poet)
My transition to progressive training based on behavioural science came very suddenly. I was reading several books and actively seeking out articles and discussion groups on the Internet to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. It would have been very tempting to follow the instructions and “recipes” of others for teaching specific, individual behaviours. I’m sure if I had followed that path, I would have gotten quite good results. Instead, I pursued a more thorough understanding of dogs and how they learn. I didn’t want to just duplicate what the authors of all of those great books had done with their animals, I wanted to discover and learn what they had discovered and learned. I did not just want to do what they did. I wanted to know what they knew. That choice has led me into learning some fascinating things not just about dogs but about other species of animals and even human behaviour and learning. It changed how I looked at life and living for the better.
Eleven years ago, when I made the decision to change how I train, force-free training and behavioural science were not nearly as prevalent in the dog community as they are today. I can only imagine how much more difficult it was for those who pioneered these ideas back in the 1980’s and earlier. For whatever reasons, the dog owning public still by and large clings to outdated ideas and theories about dogs and behaviour. There is still talk of “alpha dogs” and “pack hierarchies” even though those theories have been disproved since the 1970’s. Popular television shows about dogs feature trainers who teach dog owners to “control” their dogs instead of teach them. Dog training classes still teach “commands” and place compliance as the most important priority over understanding or willingness to work. It takes a lot of courage and resolve to stand against public opinion when you know it’s incorrect.
What makes it easier is knowing that your dog and your relationship with her is what is at stake. The choice I had to make was whether my short term desires to get my dog to do what I wanted were more important than the working relationship we would have for the next dozen or so years. Happily, it turned out that I could have both a great working relationship with my dog and teach the behaviours I wanted faster than I ever had before. Positve, force-free training based on behavioural science and learning theory offered me a better way to communicate with my dogs. And through its simple principles, it also taught me to put many of my own desires aside and learn from the training process as well.
Is there a “Zen and the Art of Dog Training?” Until recently I would not have even considered such a thing. Working with students has shown me that helping them to be mindful of both their dogs and the training process can produce better behaviour and better relationships with their dogs. Perhaps the most important thing I am teaching them is that they are the ones teaching their dogs, not me. That it is up to them to find the balance, just as I did, to become effective trainers and good students of their dogs. That the best teacher they will have as they learn dog training is, in fact, their own dog. The books and the articles and the lessons I give them are all good information. But it is their time with their dog that will be the most important.
“If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” – Eihei Dogen (13th century Zen Master)
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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