Training Tales - Vacation Edition
by Tim Wheeler, LDDR volunteer
In early May I found myself enjoying what has become my annual trip west to the great Pacific Northwest. This time around I did something I have not done for a while, hike at elevation. What made it special was the cool weather, interesting terrain/geology, and visiting friends in the area. One of the great things about getting out on the trail is, if you hike far enough, you can shift your attention away from your everyday concerns. This time around, it took a surprisingly long time to stop the internal dialogue and switch my attention to just being in the moment and enjoying the uniqueness of the setting. Changing your focus and looking at things in new ways can be a challenge at times. This hike was different though, I had no dogs in tow; it was me, the trail, and everyone else who decided to be out there pursuing the same blissful state of being.
Eventually, the everyday concerns ebbed away and I began ascending Oyster Dome Trail in earnest. The entrance to the trail is on the east side of the road, just south of the Oyster Bar on the west side of the road. I had a lot of time for thinking about the big picture, where I am at in my life, and breathing in that all that fresh O2. As the incline grew steeper and the forest denser, I decluttered my mind and focused on being in the moment. Anyone who has done even casual hiking knows there are almost always side trails. And it is often that parts of the trail are not as well marked as others. Being in a new environment, I quickly got into the habit of taking photos of the trail signs as I went, taking a photo at each turning point. Handy thing, these smartphones are.
So what does all this have to do with training anyway? I am getting to that. It struck me that life, in general, is so much like being out on the trail. Choosing the right trail, the one that leads to your objective has everything to do with animal training. To me, training animals is very much about making specific choices, ones aimed at a particular goal. If you are successful in your method and what you are trying to train works, you would tend to add it to your training repertoire. If it doesn't, you would likely make the obvious choice of getting rid of that technique, circling back to the main trail using what has worked in the past and continue working toward your objective. In other words, throw out the garbage and keep what works.
Just the other day I was walking my resident dog, Penny. I had no training treats on me; it was not going to be a long walk. I had to rely on management technique and mutual trust if I had run into another dog or human. Sometimes I think of this as 'live without a net', the 'net' being the safety of using treats as a reinforcement for behaviors I like. That day I had something almost as good though; I have what I call the power of "YES!" What does that mean? What I am trying to say is, of the 100s if not 1000s of times I have told Penny "yes" and reinforced with food for behaviors I like, Penny has associated the word with having done something good and that she will be rewarded. And what was the reward in this case? The reward was the comfort she feels at being acknowledged for her response and being reinforced by both the word "yes", but also a look from me that tells her all is well. I am also showing her there is nothing to be concerned about by deliberately slowing my pace. Why Have I slowed? To display the behavior for her that I want her to reflect, calm and moving confidently. Penny follows suit. There is another way to handle this, one I would never recommend, and that is trying to make her wrong for her behavior. Penny knows I am there to keep her safe from harm. Just looking at me tells her that I am watching and am ready to act on her behalf.
As we approached the first cross-street heading south I spied a lady with what looked like a terrier of some sort coming from the opposite direction. When the terrier spotted Penny, it started barking and jumping around. The lady walking the terrier responded with "No, no, NO." At first, when Penny looked at the terrier, I told her to "leave it" in a calm voice. Then I switched tactics. Every time the terrier barked and Penny looked, I gave her a "YES" along with good eye contact. Penny kept her cool and did not let the terrier bother her.
I confess, there was a time when I would have behaved the same as the lady with the terrier did, making the dog wrong for their behavior. Even though I am a man, I found it possible to change my mind about my approach to handle a reactive dog. Instead of making the dog wrong for behavior I don't like, why not just think of it as the dog saying "this is how I behave when I am unsure of what is going to happen next?" Okay, I'll concede, that is a complicated thought for a dog. Maybe it is something more like "HELP ME, I DON'T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO DO BUT THERE IS A DOG COMING!" Maybe that is it.
On the other hand, maybe that is not quite it either. There are many possibilities for why the terrier is being reactive but clearly, the appearance of another dog is upsetting. Thinking about the situation that way, does it really make any sense to the dog to hear "NO!" repeated over and over? It is not something the dog can respond to other than possibly be fearful of you for getting louder and more emphatic. I would like to point out that It is teaching the dog nothing about a behavior we would prefer. The reasons to persist in this behavior seem silly. Why not just reinforce what we like with "YES!"
The irony of this incident is not lost on me. Two humans with dogs saw the same situation and tried to resolve it differently. The owner of the terrier saw the situation as a behavior PROBLEM that could be solved by trying to talk her way through it; the solution was making the dog wrong for its behavior. To the dog, it seems likely that you just aren't listening. What I saw was a training OPPORTUNITY to let my dog know she was doing the right thing by looking at the approaching dog and then looking away; perfect response! Which response would you prefer? You have a choice and a way to reinforce response you like.
Learning about what works for your dogs is a big responsibility. If you aren't sure how to proceed with your dog's training, please consider a professional. Be prepared to interview them on their qualifications as trainers. I can tell you that making your dog wrong for their behavior is a losing proposition. The dog is not learning the behaviors you would prefer and you are risking the bond of mutual trust.