When my dog Tiramisu was only 3 months old, she taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about working with dogs. We had come to a difficult moment in training a behaviour. Well, difficult for me because I suddenly didn’t know what to do. I was in the process of fading out a prompt I was using to help her do the behaviour. Things had been going well and I was trying to think of a way to make the prompt less prominent and, frankly, I was stumped. So I sat there, looking at my dog, trying to think. It turned out to be a genius move.
When I train, I work fast. My goal is to have my dog do something, even part of a behaviour, so that I can reward her and have her train again. That’s how we build up to the whole behaviour. I think this was the first time I found myself without a plan in training. Little Tira must have wondered what we were waiting for as I sat there staring at her, trying to think of something to try. Then she did the behaviour! The WHOLE behaviour. Exactly the way I wanted her to do it. And I just stared in disbelief.
The best thing to do
Mark and Reward training requires that your dog actually do something that you can reward. Frequently that involves prompting them either with objects, positioning, food lures, etc. to get them to offer something that you can reward. Most of the time, these extra prompts need to be faded out, removed from the situation, so the dog performs the behaviour without assistance. What I had never considered is that these prompts can take on a significance to the dog – only do the behaviour when the prompt is there.
The lesson Tiramisu taught me on that day is that sometimes the best thing to do is to leave the prompts out of it and see what the dog will do on their own. From my perspective, I was just trying to think of what to do next. From Tira’s perspective, the rewards had stopped and she needed to find a way to get them going again. So she tried something that happened to be the exact thing I was looking for.
So what was the magic secret here? I waited. It wasn’t my intention, I was truly stumped and lost in my own thoughts. But from that time on, I always built “waiting” into my training sessions. Waiting to see what my dog would offer. It turns out that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all!
The best of conversations
There’s an old saying that “You have two ears and one mouth, that’s a good ratio.” The message being that you should listen twice as much as you speak. That sentiment suddenly became relevant to dog training for me the moment that Tira showed me what she had learned while I was unintentionally silent. Thinking about it later, it became obvious. How can we know what our dogs are learning if we don’t leave room for them to just show us without our trying to “help” them in some way?
For me, training is truly a give and take process. I didn’t always see it that way and it was difficult sometimes to make the transition to waiting when, in the past, I would have stepped in to prompt or correct my dog. It seems like we humans are always trying to make something happen. We try to get our dogs to do the behaviour we want. But at the end of the day, the goal should be for them to OFFER the behaviour when we ask for it. That’s very different from us MAKING them do it because we said so.
“Active Listening” is a technique often employed by therapists and counselors to foster better communication. The idea is that we need to focus on what the other person is saying by doing things like deferring judgment in a conversation or resisting the urge to jump ahead to another point we wish to make. So, in a way, what I was learning from Tiramisu was “active training”, a way of being attentive to her and not just trying to make the target behaviour happen.
It seems a very human trait to try to make things happen. If something we want isn’t happening, waiting to see what might change seems to be the last option we choose. We want to engage. We want to try something. Sometimes all we can think to do is express frustration. Unfortunately, our dogs have to watch it all and try make sense of it. That can be distracting.
If at first you don’t succeed
This process of “Active Training”, this waiting and watching attentively while we work with our dogs, provides us with an important opportunity. We get to see our training while it is failing to achieve the results we want! Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But watching my dog when training isn’t going well is critical to helping me find the solution. It’s not just important that the training isn’t working. My dog will very often tell me, by her incorrect responses, exactly what I need to change to make things more clear to her.
In fact, I’ve adopted something I’ve called the “Goldilocks Principle” into my training. When something isn’t going right in our training, I often watch to see if it’s too much of something or too little. Then I will often employ the opposite to see what my dog’s response is to that situation. By playing little games of “too much, too little” we very often find our way to “Just Right” pretty quickly.
Waiting too long
All of this waiting and trying to fail in different ways to find out what my dog is learning can sound like it is hard on her. It might take a while to earn a reward if things are too complex or if I can’t find the right prompts to help her offer the correct behaviour. Waiting too long can mean my dog loses motivation, gets frustrated, or just doesn’t want to play anymore.
Fortunately there is a simple solution to all of this waiting. My dog knows lots of behaviours. So when things get difficult and there might be a lot of waiting and figuring things out, it’s easy enough to just ask her for well known behaviours like “sit” or “back up” or “shake a paw” to take a break from working on that new behaviour. Easy opportunities to do behaviours she knows well can be a real benefit to my dog not just because she earns the reward, it can also relieve stress.
It’s important to remember that learning something new can be stressful. It’s a process of discovering what is wanted and there will be failure involved. Not knowing what to do and getting it wrong when you try something is stressful. Small successes will be motivating not just because of the rewards but because we are solving the puzzle. But sometimes we just need a break and it can be fun to do something we’re good at to feel more comfortable. It’s the same for our dogs.
So, in the end, I’m grateful for that moment of confusion all those years ago. Tiramisu unexpectedly showed me something that has made a huge difference to our working relationship. It’s important to wait for my dog to tell me something before just pushing ahead with the training. Wait and watch and make adjustments.
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. Well, nothing except watch the dog to see what they may be telling you. It can make the difference between good training and great training!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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