Last month I had a particularly challenging client to work with, and as usual, I’m not describing the dog. More often than not, what we trainers are called out to work on is a “problem dog,” a stubborn dog, a dog that just “won’t listen,” and 90 percent of the issue is the miscommunication between dog and owner, and the inappropriate actions the owner has taken to create the problem.
By the time we’re called out, the owner has a lot of built up frustration, is often in a permanent scolding and angry state with dog, and of course the dog has begun to tune out, ignore and stay away from this grumpy, confusing person. Saying “No!” to a dog 15-20 times a day is not the way to teach him how to behave, but it’s a great way to teach him how to avoid and ignore you.
The hardest part in these scenarios is to convince the owner to let go of the dog’s past transgressions, and begin anew. Clients seem disappointed when we don’t offer a supreme way to punish the dog that he will finally understand. But we never do that, because it isn’t a solution.
Most pet owners don’t correctly interpret their dog’s body language, but it’s apparent to us trainers when the relationship between dog and human is off. Frustrated dog owners only take into account their feelings, taking no note of the dog’s feelings. Taking a moment to ask the client, “Why do you think your dog ignores you?” or “Why won’t your dog come to you?” can be the beginning of an enlightening conversation that gives the owner a new perspective on the how’s and why’s of dog behavior and training, and why training in a positive way yields great results, plus an enthusiastic and attentive dog.
Due in great part to the resurgence of old and scientifically refuted dominance-based training techniques, many dog owners are under the impression that dog training by definition is supposed to be rough and corrective. A trainer well-versed in the science of learning theory, using noncorrective, positive techniques often has to “prove” to the client that it really can be easy and fun to train their dog – even the most ill-behaved dog.
We humans seem to be hard-wired to correct the misbehaving dog, and ignore the dog that isn’t causing any problems. If we can agree that teaching dogs how we’d like them to behave takes some effort, doesn’t it just make sense to apply that effort toward what you’d like the dog to do, instead of what you don’t want him to do? How is correcting the dog somehow easier to do than praising and rewarding the dog? Alfred Mercier wrote “What we learn with pleasure we never forget,” which holds true for all species, including humans and dogs.
So a challenge to all of you who have a dog, regardless of its age and level of home training: For the next week, commit to removing the word “No” from your doggie vocabulary, and instead make it a point to acknowledge and praise your dog each and every time he is doing something that you like.
This gives the dog a wealth of information, and as all dogs strive to do things that yield rewards for them, your dog will begin to figure out many of the ways he can get you to praise him, pet him, play with him and maybe even treat him – by laying at your feet, standing close to you instead of jumping, being quiet instead of barking, etc. This isn’t the end-all of positive, intelligent and gentle training, but it’s a good start. And at the end of the day, your dog still will want to be around you, and want a relationship with you. Isn’t that why we have dogs?