Dog training is a mystifying topic for many people. There are so many ways to work with dogs, and I certainly have my own preferred methods. At the end of the day, it’s all about having the dog respond to you while still getting to be a dog when he’s off-duty. As a dog trainer, I’m part-handler, part-teacher. I’m teaching you, developing your canine instinct too. I enjoy getting into the heads of both my dogs and humans and finding what works best on an individual basis.
But the bottom line:
it’s all about communicating.
There’s a common sense, simple, straightforward, natural way to communicate with dogs, and it’s based on love, trust and respect. Love between a handler and dog puts their relationship in a positive framework. The handler makes the relationship functional by earning respect from the dog; respect can’t be obtained with food or muscle. And with love and respect, comes trust. Once you gain your dog’s trust, it becomes the progressive component of the relationship. Having that combination of love, trust, and respect enables the handler and dog to work as a team and accomplish nearly anything.
What tools can we use to build that relationship to have more effective learning experiences with our dogs? I often break down the important elements of our relationship into simple terms, such as consistency and an earning system.
Consistency has to be one of the most frequently misinterpreted words used when working with dogs. Most often, people assume it means repetition—if you put a dog on a sit-stay on a rug and the dog breaks the stay ten times, it’s enough to just put the dog back on the rug ten times. What often happens is first a person calls the dog back and says, “Sit,” and then pulls the dog by the collar and basically puts them in the same spot. Next time: different words, different spot. Next time: different motions, but angrier. From a dog’s perspective, there’s nothing the same about this at all. It begins to feel more like a test of wills.
Your dog must hear, see, and feel the same things coming from you, the handler, during authoritative times—that means mechanically, physically, and emotionally. From a dog’s perspective, all leaders have goals, but good leaders have plans. So when the dog breaks the stay ten times, yes, the handler puts the dog back in the same spot ten times. But she does it according to her own plan, which means she does it mechanically and emotionally the same way: hand in the same spot on the dog’s body, voice in the same tone, dog in the same location. Every time. That is how a dog defines consistency.
I often tell my students that a dog will only handle well when the handler has presented him or herself well over a period of time. Dogs base the present on the past. So in a sense, dog training—which is really educating yourself and your dog—is about creating a new history between yourself and your dog, in which you become not a human dog biscuit dispenser or tennis ball launcher but a leader.
You Get What You Reinforce –
Not Necessarily What You Want
The Earning System
The earning system comes into play for both dog and human. The most important question a handler can ask himself is, “Have I earned the right to be in this situation with my dog?” One of the greatest challenges for us humans is keeping our dogs on an earning system. But there’s a very good reason for it.
You keep your dogs on the earning system because that’s what enables you to have control over your dog to keep him safe and keep yourself sane and ultimately give your dog more safe, recreational fun. Again, this is based on the respect that your dog has for you and the trust that you’re able to have in your dog. That’s what the component of discipline is all about. When I refer to discipline, I’m talking about educating the dog to have the necessary sense of priority that you, as a handler, and your commands, such as stay, heel and come, are the most important thing in any environment at any given time. This is what creates security and safety for your dog.
There’s no single, cookie-cutter plan that will work with all dogs. But for you to be the best trainer for your dog, you should develop a plan of consistency and create objectives you can adhere to and measure your success in increments.
I’ve created a system of checks and balances and grading for my canine and human students, and it goes a long way. Framed within the earning system, it works with the idea of small steps: we make sure we’ve achieved a lower level of success, in a less distracting environment, before we go further.
Consider teaching a dog to walk well on a leash in the heel command. For a dog, that means being on the left, close to the handler’s left leg, in a loose leash. The handler and the dog must be able to walk their city block, or, if you live in a rural area, to the end of your current visual environment—the neighbor’s mailbox, the bend in the road, the hill, etc. You want your dog walking with you—not pulling against you as if you’re a mobile fence post. You want your dog to demonstrate cooperation with the heel command without much correction in a distracting environment.
There’s a difference between Reward and Bribery.
If you have to wear him down, you haven’t earned the right to be in that environment with him. That’s a key point of assessment. Always ask yourself this question: “Have I earned the right to be in this situation with my dog?” The answer obviously has everything to do with lower level success in previous and/or less distracting environments.
If you’re working on heeling your dog from your driveway to the bend in the road two hundred feet ahead and the dog is doing terribly, you should not leave that visual environment with him. This would be rewarding the dog with new environmental delights. If you had planned to do a twenty-minute walk with a specific destination in mind, and the success is just not there, then commit yourself to staying in the first visual environment for the rest of the walk. This encourages the dog to give more attention to its handler and makes it a more synergistic walking experience. Why? By advancing from one environment to the next on the same walk, despite the dog’s less-than-stellar performance, the handler would be conveying to the dog that even though as a handler you want the dog to stop pulling, it must not be too important—since you continue to give the dog new environments to indulge in.
I hope this information is useful. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. But just remember, the more responsive your dog is to you, the more you can do with him, and the more fun your life together will be.
Kyle Warren has been working professionally with people and dogs throughout Ulster and northern Dutchess counties since 1996. He offers personal, one-on-one lessons in all environments and can help you and your dog with obedience, family dog issues, aggression rehab, tracking, and working with upland and waterfowl dogs. You can learn more at KyleWarrenDogs.com, or contact email@example.com 845-399-3439