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Keep Smiling Through It All

We are gearing up for summer in the Bay Area, and with the longer days and drier weather, many a dog owner begins to search the internet for new activities to participate in with his dog. Some opt for sport-minded activities such as agility, scent work, or dock diving. (Yes! Try dock diving! Well, if your dog likes water, that is.)

However, there are also plenty of enjoyable and useful training classes you can attend to improve both your dog’s behavior and your own canine communication skills. For example, this is the perfect time to take a single-topic class to work on recall or proper leash manners, or for your pup to earn a Canine Good Citizen certificate. We really are lucky here in the Bay Area, where the sky is the limit when it comes to dog-friendly activities.

One of the wonderful things about canine extracurricular classes, or CEC, is that in comparison to a basic obedience class, they are often viewed by the owner as purely for fun so tend to be very low pressure. Generally, when the human feels relaxed about class and is there for a good time, rather than to “fix a problem,” he tends to smile more and give better, kinder feedback to his dog. This lack of pressure and stress allows the dog to also relax, focus, which really allows the team to shine.

So with this issue of Bay Woof’s sporting theme in mind, I’d like to address the topic of training goals and shooting for your personal best.

As I mentioned, I often find that alternative classes create more smiles, have a more relaxed atmosphere, and in many cases, produce faster, more successful results than traditional training classes. This seems to be the case, even though in every sport or even tricks class, basic obedience behaviors are taught as part of the foundation work, meaning many of the same behaviors are introduced and practiced, especially at the introductory level, in nearly any kind of class.

So why, then, the discrepancy?

There are probably many reasons; however, I think primarily it comes down to the dog handler’s expectations and attitude. In obedience class, many people become somewhat militant in demeanor. They seem to feel that training is serious business and that it’s important to show the dog who is in control; who is “alpha.” The tone that is set in most folk’s minds in a basic manners class is that of “master and faithful (if subservient) companion.” Whereas, in an elective class, people see teamwork in a different way; owners act more like dance partners or little league coaches for their dogs. In the latter scenario, there is much less responsibility and blame placed on the learner at the collared-end of the leash. When people act like coaches or partners with their dog, the entire environment changes. This mindset allows people to both take more responsibility for teaching their dog the new skills and also to be more patient and reinforce their dog for effort over perfection. Doggy disasters are seen with humor and for what they are—part of the learning process, instead as of some sort of mindful defiance. Trust, reinforcement, and an environment where it is safe to try and fail actually encourage learning.

Additionally, expectations are usually lower in extracurricular classes than in a manners/obedience class. People expect their dogs to come when called, every time, right away, even if they’ve never actually taken the time to train all of the pieces of the exercises clearly, slowly, methodically. From the human standpoint, dogs should come when called, based on principle, their role in our lives, some sort of canine mythology, or because we said so. On the other hand, nobody really expects their dog to do a series of jumps, run a plank, and weave perfectly through a series of poles on our whim. The truth of the matter is that both coming when called and teaching a dog an agility course require the same sort of thoughtful instruction, and neither are inherently clear to, nor important to, a dog without training.

My tip? To smile, no matter what your training goal is this summer. Have fun with it, bring patience and play into every single training session. And remember, training your dog is not a contest, but a process by which the two of you bond as a team. You need not take first place in national competitions to come out a winner, achieving personal goals while having a blast is the real prize.

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: phrawr-Creative Commons