Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some Training Thoughts

On Monday nights I teach agility classes at a training center in Missoula. One would think such a job would be about training dogs but really -- it is about training people to train dogs. I think it would be easier to just train the dogs!

The really fun part is to interact with all the sweet dogs and their owners -- you meet some really interesting and nice people teaching dog training classes! But I am reminded over and over about how hard it is to wrap one's mind around a few simple truths that are useful in dog training -- and life.

First of all, yelling what you want does not really increase understanding. If a dog -- or person -- does not get it when we are speaking in a normal, nice voice what exactly makes us think it will be different if we turn up the volume?!

Second, stress is not conducive to learning -- and stress happens when we ask for too much, too soon. And guess what? When it comes to dogs (or other people), we do not get to decide what is stressful and what isn't -- what matters is only what the dog thinks is stressful. A good trainer recognizes stress and knows how to increase demand without creating overload.

Third, embarrassment is the mortal enemy of dog training (and showing). It causes us to do all manner of really unfortunate things -- blame the dog, lose our objectivity, feel incompetent, forget to be fun and silly, create stress/overload in our dog, and sometimes even quit. We really all need to get over middle school and stop worrying about what anyone else thinks.

Fourth, humility is the friend of dog training! Being open to new information and new ways of doing things is how we improve -- if we already know everything, then we should expect to stay exactly where we are right now.

Fifth, when you are willing to work with no reward then you can expect your dog to do that. Does anyone REALLY still think a dog should do something "because I said so"?! Get over it and get out the cookies -- that is not real life.

Sixth, punishment doesn't work. Well, maybe it makes the punisher feel powerful or something like that, and if that is goal -- okay. But in dog training, punishment is not effective for long-term success -- you have to make it reinforcing.

Seventh (related to above), the dog gets to choose the reinforcer! Rewarding your dog with a handful of hay is probably not going to get you very far -- you have to figure out what a dog loves, and I am not just talking about food. I love seeing dogs light up when their owners remember to happily and genuinely praise them -- or play with them :)

Eighth, dog training is not about power -- it is about learning to cooperate, and that involves respect. We must learn and respect the needs and wants of our dog in order to have a cooperative and productive training relationship.

Ninth, dogs have individual personalities -- like people -- and trying to figure out "why" is basically a waste of time. Who knows why cute Foxy Brown hates the dog walk?! Is knowing going to change anything? No -- our job is to simply figure out how to help her see that the dog walk is okay -- fun even! Focusing too long and hard on the why's gets in the way of HOW.

Tenth, as I said at Camp Kaibab -- if the neighbors don't wonder what the heck is going on next door, you aren't doing it right. Training a dog should be playful, fun, happy, and crazy!!! Liz (Tara Geneva's mom -- they came to Camp) offered us our new training motto: Let Your Freak Flag Fly!!!! (Say that three times fast!)

So there you go -- some things to think about as you interact with your dog -- and with other people. Have a happy, playful, freaky day :)

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