Training Yourself to Train Your Dog
There is one thing that we all share when it comes to dog training. Whether you are training your dog to be a well-mannered companion, working towards an Obedience Trial Championship, or training your dog for a specific skill or job, somewhere in your training you have weak areas.
The dog that is flawless in the backyard, has less interest in working when you take her to a park to train, the dog that is always social suddenly becomes reactive towards other dogs, and the dog that you thought was trained chooses not to listen when you are not carrying a bag of treats.
Don’t be upset if your dog makes a mistake or has a bad day. Dogs are dogs after all and we are the ones who have created all of these rules for them. If you find a weak area in your training look at what things you can change to help your dog, including your own behavior.
The list of habits we can pick up which will have an impact on our dog’s behavior is long but here are a few common mistakes that we make and ways we can fix them.
Problem: Your actions are incongruent
Goal: A dog that pays attention even when you don't have a treat or reward in sight.
You say you want your dog’s attention even when you don’t have a treat or toy reward in sight but you have failed to tell this to your dog.
“She only listens when I have treats,” is a common complaint among dog owners.
Are you teaching your dog how to listen when the reward is not in your hand or treat bag or are you teaching your dog to only listen as you reach for the reward?
If this is a problem you are faced with, here is what is likely going on.
Every time you ask your dog for a behavior, you are reaching into your treat bag or getting his reward at the same time as asking. You don’t believe that your dog will listen to your requests so you have trained yourself to reach for the reward at the same time as asking something of your dog knowing that he will obey with the promise of a high value reward or over time you learned that your dog listens better when you are giving hints about the treats in your pocket which is much more rewarding for you than a dog that does not listen.
When you get in the ring or go out with your dog in public and the rewards are not there, your dog does not know how to listen to your requests. You think that your dog is being stubborn; choosing not to listen because he does not see a treat when in fact, you are the one that trained him that the cue for behaviors involves you reaching for a treat. You never gave him the chance to practice any other way.
You might be thinking that there is no way you are making this mistake.
You are advanced enough that you practice your skills and you have perfected mechanics. There is no way that you are reaching for a reward as a promise to your dog before the trained behavior happens. You know better.
Even if you do not dive into your treat bag, you may still have some small habit that has worked its way into your cue. A behavior so small that only a dog would notice, yet when working your dog out in public or in the ring when you either don’t have rewards or you want your dog to be more impressive, working for you without a treat in your hand, your behavior changes enough to create what looks like a mistake on your dog’s part.
In practice you might keep your hand a little closer to your treat hip, your hand might curl into a “c’ as if about to reach for a treat, you might keep your arm close to your body if you are used to holding a tug toy for a reward, or you might simply lean a different way. Your dog will notice every muscle movement no matter how small.
Your can train your dog using lures and you should most certainly pay your dog with many types of rewards, but phase your lure out quickly. Make sure that you are rewarding your dog for behaviors and not getting your reward ready before the behavior happens. Use many types of rewards including play, games, praise, treats, toys and anything else that your dog likes. Practice different types of reward delivery to keep you self-aware.
Practice in many locations and in front of many people. What you do while practicing in your backyard will be different from what you do while out with your dog unless you are consistent with keeping your body language and tone the same in practice and in public. You have to know what you want from your dog and train yourself as much as you train your dog. If you want your dog to come to you on just a verbal cue, don’t lean forward as you call him, if you want your working dog to work in a stressful situation, think how your own body language will change under such stress and if you want your trick dog to perform at an event, what will you be like with an audience?
If you want your dog to listen while out and about, make sure you’re giving him clear instructions. Any changes in our body language and cues can result in mistakes. If you truly want a dog that will listen to you without holding a treat in front of his nose or even less obviously promising him a reward, make sure you have given your dog a chance to practice.
There are many more examples of how your actions might not make sense for the goals you have. A simple exercise is to make a list of your most important dog training goals and start to observe how you are either working towards or against those goals and make the necessary changes.
Goal: Solid stays without having to keep eyes on the dog.
Problem: During practice you watch the dog frequently during the stay and as you walk away during a long stay your are unsure if you are moving too far or if your dog will make a mistake. Your lack of confidence in the dog becomes a part of the cue that the dog expects so in real life or in the ring when you want to show how well your dog can stay and you walk away more confidently the dog makes a mistake. This can work the other way around as well. If you are more relaxed and confident while practicing but become tense or insecure while competing or working your dog, your dog will notice resulting in mistakes.
Fix: Use mirrors in practice so you can watch the dog without staring directly. Time how often you check in with the dog and decrease the check-ins. Make sure your dog finds your lack of attention to be rewarding. You could ask your dog to stay and only go back and reward him after you have taken your attention away. Practice stays in many different ways and not just straight across the room.
Another example of how we can have an impact on our dog’s behavior is one that can be a little more challenging to practice and control but it can be very powerful if you are able to. You may have heard before that your emotions travel down the leash to your dog. What exactly does that mean?
Your dog is going to notice how you feel sometimes before you notice. This is an important piece of information to understand if you have a dog that reacts to other dogs or people on leash. Is your behavior telling your dog to react? Do you get nervous when you see another dog or person because you are not sure what your dog will do?
If you train yourself to have calm body language will your dog follow your lead and be less likely to react? Controlling our own reactions can make a huge difference when working with reactive dogs. There are many reasons that dogs do the things they do and this might just be one part of it, but it can be a very important change to make. Try it and see how your own dog responds.
The relationship between our own behavior and the behavior of our dogs is a fascinating one. Sometimes we have to focus less on training the dog and put attention on how we handle and interact with the dog better by changing our own behavior.
Don’t try to change everything you are doing in one training session. Simply begin to pay close attention to your own actions and observe how the people around you interact with their dogs too. Acknowledge that your dog does not make mistakes on purpose. Notice what we are saying to our dogs and you will better understand why your own dog responds differently to you in different situations.
Do your actions make sense for the goals that you have? Are you telling your dog to do something without realizing it or confusing your dog with a change in body language or tone?
If you simply want to enjoy a bond with your dog and have a well-mannered companion you can make small changes that will help you achieve your goals while being your dog’s best friend for communicating clearly and fairly.