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Bring the Hands-Free, Fun, and Friendly Approach to Training

Last month I wrote about my puppy training student, Bob. I am happy to report that he’s still adorable and doing very well. This month, I am going to tell you about another student of mine, called Jones.

I worked with Jones when he was a wee pup, just like I did with Bob. Jones is now about nine months old, right in the throes of adolescence. I haven’t seen him in several months. His family was meant to keep up with the practice exercises I’d outlined for them between our training camp sessions.

When Jones came back to visit me last week, I noticed that he wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about interacting with me. Don’t get me wrong; he greeted me excitedly upon our reunion, some might even say too excitedly. That was part of the problem. He seemed to have completely forgotten the polite greeting routine we’d practiced at least 100 times.

So it wasn’t that Jones wasn’t friendly, rather, he was … hesitant. Jones was wary of certain basic everyday actions and of proximity to me under certain circumstances. Also, he had what appeared to be zero name recognition, which was silly, because he used to always make eye contact when his name was uttered and sit at my feet, smiling up at me. This time, Jones would not acknowledge his name at all; he just continued doing whatever he was doing at the time or, in some cases, even casually moved further away from me.

I came to the conclusion that his family had not been doing their fun little training exercises I’d prepped Jones for and laid out for them. I suspected that instead of teaching Jones to enjoy voluntarily following their requests for basic behaviors such as coming when called, sitting for putting his leash on, and happily running into his crate at meal time or for short breaks in the day, they’d unintentionally created a dog that either ignored them, became overly-excited, or, alternately, anxious about these sort of things.

This is a very common problem in companion dogs that occurs when people focus on the negative behavior of a dog and/or try to physically suppress or coerce a dog into “behaving.” I am not talking about being abusive or cruel. Rather, this sort of thing happens when we humans engage in three of our worst communication habits: complaining, nagging, and grabbing.

Let’s start with complaining. It’s human nature. Even when we deal with one another, most people tend to ignore good behavior and only bother to pipe up when things are not to their liking. Rating platforms such as Yelp are full of people complaining about businesses because they feel the service they received did not meet their expectations. On rare occasion you’ll come across a rave review, praising a business for a job well done. However, it is even more rare to find a Yelp reviewer who takes the time to say that a service went off without a hitch, just as expected, which is surely the majority of experiences one has when out and about doing business in the world. When we expect a certain standard of behavior, we often take this good for granted. This approach, highlighting the bad and ignoring the good, is the exact opposite of what a good teacher or trainer does to improve performance, in humans and dogs alike

A mantra for my students is: “If this is ‘wrong’ behavior, what is ‘right’?” What is it you’d like to see more of from your dog? For example, if you don’t like jumping as a form of greeting, instead of telling your dog “No!” when he offends, why not request a competing and rewardable behavior, such as sit? With a little bit of practice, it works like a charm. You’ve just trained a polite greeting.

As for nagging, so many folks use a dog’s name as if it is an all-purpose training cue. When people want their dog’s attention, or for them to come to them, or to sit or lie down calmly, so many people just repeat their dog’s name. Over and over. With no actual instruction. This nagging devalues the impact of what should really be one of your dog’s favorite words. We want them to love the sound of their name and to understand that when you use it, you’d like their attention, likely because another word, an actual instructional cue, is coming next, which is often an opportunity for a wonderful reward. Please only use your dog’s name when you are doing good and happy things with her and when you are going to follow up with a clear instruction that you are ready to help them learn and follow. Please don’t be that person at the park who calls his dog’s name over and over with no results. It makes you look silly and it actually makes your dog tune out and even less likely to come with every repetition. To elicit a behavior you’d like to see more of you must actual do something, not simply say something. Then you must reward good behavior.

Finally, please try really hard to not grab, push, or pull your pup into position. Touch masks learning. It can also cause opposition reflex, which means when you apply physical pressures, your dog might even actually reflexively do the opposite of what you want her to do. Instead, of grabbing your dog’s collar to get him to come, load up in his crate, or jump in the car, find a way to engage him to want to do these things without touching him. Squeak a toy, throw a treat, bend down and appear inviting and playful.

Jones’ family needs to practice the hands-free, fun, and friendly approach to training in order to best nurture their relationship and convince their blossoming teen that he wants to do what they want him to do. Remember, it is much easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar (or your bare hands).

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.

Main article photo by: Photo by Aidras-CC