Training Philosophy: Game on!

534D3199-201F-48BB-8A6F-582C4C48C138 We get dogs for fun, comfort, companionship, assistance in various tasks. We get them because they make us laugh, help us feel safe, keep us fit,  tell us when the mailman is here. So just as I don’t  want an “obedient” friend, training buddy or teammate, having an obedient dog isn’t my goal,Mutual understanding and cooperation is my aim. Dogs can see, hear, smell, feel and experience the world, know and do things that we can’t. As a trainer, I want to teach mutual understanding, cooperation and trust, because that’s how we can have the most fun with our dogs.

I’m hard of hearing, so I teach all my dogs to perform hearing alerts. My bichon LionDandelion was downstairs barking his head off while I was trying to write. I guessed it was someone at the door, I didn’t want to answer the door, and so I gave him my  release cue. “Thanks! Okay!” That was my cue for him to stop barking.  But he kept on barking and barking. Ugh! NOT obedient. Annoyed,  I dragged myself down the stairs and he wasn’t barking at the door, he was barking at the chimney. Chimney fire! Apparently chimney fires make a noise. Who knew? Good boy Dandylion!

Jenny with Tigerlily in 2008. Jumping up was a very motivating trick for Tiger!

When people ask  about shock collars, I think of stories like that one, and some of the unexpected and largely unseen side effects of shock. As a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, we sign onto the “Humane Heirarchy,” which means punishers  such as shock are used as an absolute last resort. We design the least invasive, minimally aversive solution to training and learning problems. This works for me, because I want a dog who dares to be a little bit disobedient when necessary. I want a dog who dares to take risks and experiment, because this allows them to grow in what they can do.  It’s hard to see desirable behaviors disappearing before they are even expressed, but that’s what can happen with aversives.

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Obedience isn’t a bad thing of course, we compete successfully in the sport, and like everyone else I don’t want my dogs to get into trouble or embarass me. And as you know, dogs CAN embarass us!  One time, I had a vacationer (aka my client) come to my gate seeking  assistance. Uncharacteristically, Bee went ballistic, and wasn’t responding to my cues.  I was mortified. “Down! Sit! Stop!  He’s our guest!” I got Bee marginally under control, opened the gate and the guest fell onto me, groping me as he nearly pulled me down with him to the ground. He was completely drunk. My husband came to the door. “What’s going on?” The client was laying in a heap on the ground,  Bee glaring at him with an “I told you so” expression on her face.

Queen Bee

If your focus is on building “obedience” rather than building trust, understanding and cooperation,  your dog might hide their feelings from you. They might not dare to show you what they’re really thinking.

For me, trust is the most important ingredient in dog training.  Humans, like dogs, can make mistakes in understanding.  We might, for good reason, sometimes  fail to cooperate.   But trust should never be sacrificed.

When your dogs  trust you, it’s easier for them to learn. Like my mentor Susan Garrett, I base my training plans on games. All games need rules, but if you add force, fear, or pain, that’s not a game anyone wants to play. Games are about making choices, and  games of choice make dogs more confident motivated partners.     Does this sound like the way you like to play? Okay then! Game on!