A student once asked me, “Why isn’t my dog running faster when we do agility together?” I stood there for a few seconds, completely speechless. In that moment, 15 years of learning about canine behaviour, motivation, operant and classical conditioning, observation skills, health concerns, relationship management, reward schedules, and dozens more topics began flashing through my head. I struggled to find a place to start my answer. Although my student would think that was a simple question, it seemed to me to be more like 5 or 6 initial questions. And the answers to those questions would inevitably lead to several more questions before we could get close to a definitive answer. In the end, I just smiled and said, “Let’s try it again but this time I only want you to do these 3 jumps and reward her no matter what happens.” It wasn’t the answer I wanted to give.
Experience has taught me that even though all of the things that I have learned about working with dogs come together to make perfect sense in my head, trying to explain them to a student can sometimes be like asking them to take a sip of water from a fire hose. It’s just too much information all at once. In most cases, people don’t really want to know why something is or isn’t happening. What they want to know is how to make it work the way they want it to work. And that is a very different question.
Mind all the moving parts
Immersing myself in learning about canine behaviour and behavioural science has taught me one very important thing – while the observable results of my dog’s behaviour may be simple, the motivation, learning, and focus that goes into my dog performing that behaviour is not so simple. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean that my dog’s behaviour is complicated or hard to understand. I just have to take the right things into account and sometimes that means looking beyond the simple question “Did she sit when I asked?”
The real challenge I often have in working with people is that they focus almost exclusively on results – did the dog do the behaviour or not. When they don’t get the desired results, they want to do whatever thing does get the results they want. Unfortunately that can be as useful as continually mashing the elevator button to get it to arrive faster. I’m doing something but it isn’t helping. There may be many reasons my dog isn’t responding the way I would like and just trying to “fix it” can mean I am ignoring some very important things or doing things that aren’t really helping.
My dog could be distracted because we are in a new, interesting place. She could be feeling ill or hurting. She might not understand my cue as well as I thought she did or I haven’t rewarded her enough for that behaviour. It could even be that I have shown her my frustration too often and she just doesn’t want to risk being wrong. See what I mean? The answer may be simple but finding that answer may not be so simple. It would be better to know what the problem is before rushing to a provide a solution.
So what should I do when I know I’m really being asked “how do I make it work?“ The temptation is to launch into a detailed answer including all of the various topics that would address the question. This is where the dog owner has just asked for that drink of water and I am about to turn on the fire hose. Too many times I have launched into a detailed answer to address their training problem and noticed that look on the owner’s face. The one where their eyes are glazing over and they have that frozen smile while they listen politely. It’s a look that says, “Could you just shut up and train the dog, please?”
Like most people, I was taught that dogs were simple and you just made them to do what you wanted when you wanted it. Training was a simple thing and you either did it or you didn’t. If your dog responded to your cues, Good Dog! If not, Bad Dog! But now I know it doesn’t work like that. Trust me, there are days I would like it to be that simple. But now I have a different perspective and there is this big gap between what I know and what the dog owner knows. The challenge is to address their question without presenting a 2 hour lecture on behaviour and training. I need to shut up and train the dog.
Show and tell
I know that I’m not alone in struggling with this challenge. Life would be so much easier if changing our dogs’ behaviour was as easy as pushing a button or pulling a lever. So, when helping someone with their dog, I try to find a bridge between the “simple” answer that addresses their immediate concern while still bringing them a little closer to understanding the concept I’m trying to show. Most often I will come up with something that they can do right here and right now that addresses their problem to start off.
For example, if the owner is concerned that their dog jumps up on them for attention, I ask them to just stay still and – do nothing! I do the same thing – nothing! And for several seconds the dog will jump up and bounce and try to get some attention. The instant they stop, I reward the dog with some attention or a food treat. If they start to jump again, I go still and do nothing. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of this for the dog to get the message. Jumping up equals nothing from the human but staying on the ground gets you what you want!
Once we can both see the results, I can explain what’s going on. There is a simple reason their dog jumps up. It works! It gets them the attention they want. So two things have to happen. First, we need to make sure that the behaviour that we don’t want (jumping up) doesn’t produce what the dog wants. And second, when the dog does what we want (keep 4 paws on the floor or sit), that’s when the good stuff happens!
People are often thrilled to have something new to work with in training their dog. But there is a temptation to demonstrate the solution and leave it there. There is a fear of “boring” or “losing” the dog owner if talk about what’s happening. That fear makes it easy to skip over the part where we teach a bit about the concept. It’s easy to get dog owners to do the right things with their dogs when you show them something that gets results. It’s not so easy to take that extra step and help them understand why it works. In order to avoid turning on that fire hose, I only give them part of the answer so I don’t overwhelm them. I guess it’s my way of implementing an old Chinese proverb – “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Sometimes doing the thing I want to explain to a dog owner is the best way to show them what I mean. If they can see that what I am trying to teach them works with their dog, it can have a profound impact. All of the different scientific terms and concepts that seem to bounce off when I try to explain it to them suddenly become simple and easy to understand if I can just work with the dog and relate those concepts to what I just showed them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a demo can be priceless in getting dog owners hooked on a new way to work with their dogs.
But I always have to keep in mind that this approach only works if I follow up that demonstration with solid information on why it works without being too “wordy” or over-explaining. Even though I’m helping them with their training, it’s not really appropriate to take up too much time as I’m trying to help them. I like to think of it like filling a glass of water. You can only fill it so far and then you’re just pouring water all over the table. Sometimes it’s better to stop explaining and just show them what you mean. You know, just shut up and train the dog! Just don’t forget to pass on a little bit wisdom after the show.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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