As a positive reinforcement dog trainer I think a lot about how to teach people to better understand their dogs. When I arrive for a dog training session, the first thing I do is “read” the dog. If the dog is fearful or overly excited I will act differently than if it is eager to greet me. Is it approaching me or retreating? What would I do if the dog is barking or lunging at me? I will make different choices for a fearful dog than I would for a friendly dog. I will do things that will help the dog feel understood so I can then build a connection. In the first five minutes, I am gathering information that will help to shape my own behavior towards the dog.
What to do for a fearful dog? What if the dog is aggressive? I will not make direct eye contact, approach or reach for that dog. I will ignore them, connect with their family and wait until they come to sniff me (and even then I will do the same as above). If the dog is truly aggressive we would be discussing muzzle training before a physical interaction but that would involve much more than simply walking in the door and delivering treats. What if the dog is jumping on me or is overly excited? I will not engage, I will wait for them to calm down and silently reward them when they do.
I will eventually connect with the dog but not until the time is right. I may even reward the dog but again, not until it is appropriate and in line with a behavior I like. If I show up and start tossing treats randomly (which is what many people think positive reinforcement is) I could inadvertently reward behaviors that are unwanted. (Which is what is often accidentally happening in dog households everywhere).
People think their dog is behaving well for me because I have “treats”. While I do agree that sometimes the dog pays special attention to me because of this (and, if it’s too much attention the treats go back in my car) the way I use the treats - my timing and my rate of reinforcement (rewarding) is what the dog notices most. They begin to pay attention, feel understood, heard and are eager to communicate more. Training your dog is not about being alpha – that has long been debunked. If you want a good connection with your dog, try teaching them to make choices so they can succeed time and time again.
If we can all establish this type of rapport with our dogs, life will be much easier for all involved and our dogs would be happier, too!
I encourage you to start to think of your training from the dog’s point of view. What are they thinking? What motivates them and how can I use that to my advantage? This is the best way to train our dogs, as a partner in learning. When we take the time to learn about how our dog’s learn, what motivates them, calms them and makes them happy, we are on our way to better behavior and a much stronger connection with our dog.
Christine Durrant, CPDT-KA Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant