Dog training is not as straightforward as dog trainers make it appear. Our skills and experience allow us to offer multiple solutions and techniques to a myriad of issues and queries. We can help your dog play, learn, settle in seconds while you have struggled to get any engagement at all. And so we should, that is our job. But behind the Facebook videos and the glossy Instagram feeds is real life. And in real life dog trainers can be just as frustrated and confused as you.
Dog training is as much an art as a science and for it to be effective you have to empathise with the dog. You have to spot and understand body language, vocalisations, nuances. You have to know how dogs learn, what behavioural motivators drive them, what protocols are likely to work in any given situation. And timing. Timing is everything. Give a treat at the wrong moment and you’ve inadvertently rewarded a woof instead of a shush. How long is too long to wait when rewarding a pup for staying quietly in her cage? Waiting for that lie down and settle could mean missing the chance to reward the quiet, happy sit. But too many treats tossed into the cage can maintain alertness rather than promote relaxation. You have to feel it. Feel when to wait and when to reward. And make no mistake, when I say feel, I really mean observe. Describing why you rewarded or waited requires you to explain what you saw that helped you make your decision. You may not know what you saw. So just as I advise all the time in scentwork, filming as you work (just for your own information – no need to tidy the house or impact the interaction) allows you to look back to discover for yourself why you made your choice. When I worked in rescue I often got a gut feeling about a dog. But apart from avoiding being bitten, my gut feeling was of no use to anyone. I had to be able to describe why my gut was telling me to be careful or be confident. Gut feeling is essential and I’ve found that when I ignore it – in all aspects of my life – that’s when things go wrong. But detailing the information that informs the gut feeling helps me be effective, helps me to look for those signals in future and helps me learn about the dog I’m working with.
Teaching helps clarify decision making. If I cannot describe when to reward, I cannot teach someone to replicate the result. I’ve come to some very profound and creative solutions when presented with a problem that needs a solution right in that moment. Being able to try the solution instantly and so adopt or adapt it is so much more useful than sitting at home theorising about what could work, what might work given a, b or c factors. Feedback and contact is what helps me learn best, and book work and theory help me explain it after the fact. I’ve always worked best this way and as a result have always respected those who are out there doing the job more than those who sit in ivory towers pontificating about how they could do things better.
Work with your dog, try things out. If they don’t work, try something else. If you are using reward-based methods (rather than punishment) you can’t go far wrong if your chosen technique doesn’t work this time around. You will get frustrated. This is coming from someone who a couple of weeks ago wrote about a landmark moment in her puppy’s toilet training but who is still cleaning up puddles on a daily basis! Try not to take your frustration out on the dog, she is doing the best she can. Walk it off, listen to music, eat cake, do whatever you must to reset, ready to try again. Thoughtful persistence will win through. There is no set time frame or set number of repetitions that will guarantee success. But good teamwork will. I recently watched the Tim Minchin series Upright* (highly recommended) and there was a line in it when he was talking to a child about learning to play piano. He said “Don’t practise. Don’t think of it as practise, it’s just play.” For me, this was a lightbulb moment, a clarification of what I feel about teaching dogs new skills. So go forward with that in your mind and enjoy every second that you spend learning together.
Note: I originally published this post on my old website on 9th Dec 2019