After I posted Brito’s video several days ago, a Facebook friend asked if I was concerned about the quantity of “chatter” in our training session. When and how would I wean off of that?
It’s a good question. A great question! Because many many obedience trainers inadvertently teach their dogs that silence is bad – mostly because they’re never silent unless they’re getting mad, or they’re in a competition.
I gave my friend a quick answer as to why I was not concerned, but it got me thinking….why is it ok that I’m chattering at my puppy for 95% of our training session? What will that look like in the future? What value does it bring to our time together?
Having given it some thought, let me share my conclusions; maybe they’ll help someone else make better decisions about when and how much to interact when training.
In Brito’s case, there are a couple of reasons why I’m very comfortable with ongoing chatter. The first is simple:
At Brito’s stage of training and development, my primary interest is creating a super positive CER (conditioned emotional response) to me, training, and training locations. I want him to associate every moment of training with being a star. I want him to believe he is simply amazing when he spends time with me. I want him to turn into a show-off, full of confidence and oozing personality. It doesn’t matter too much if we’re training, playing fetch, tugging, or just interacting with each other. This emotional state is much more important than any specific behavior. While I have certainly taught him a range of behaviors, I’m really more focused on our overall engagement and his excitement about working with me than I am over any skills that he may have acquired.
Note that my enthusiasm and cheering reflect what he is already giving me. I do not cheerlead. I do not overwhelm. I do not use chatter to try and pull energy out of him that is not there. I simply respond to him; Brito is the primary driver in this interaction. If he wants me to tell him that he is amazing, then he needs to be amazing. And he is!
First I need to work to make him care about how I feel; that is my responsibility. Second he needs to find ways to make my enthusiastic expressions happen. That responsibility falls squarely on his little shoulders.
Over time, my expressions of delight will decrease for a few reasons, but the most notable one is simple; I’ll become harder to impress. When Brito has shown me that he can heel for five or ten steps without a lot of effort, it will become old hat. Not nearly so exciting, so my natural response won’t be to cheer. Maybe to smile, but not to cheer.
At that point, he’ll have to come up with something new to impress me with…maybe a particularly fast retrieve or a snappy sit in heel position. Well, that deserves cheering, because it is how I feel on the inside! Good training should be designed to ensure that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to impress me over the next year. I’ll make sure that he’s always learning new skills or honing old ones so that there is material for him to impress me with!
Eventually, the way to impress me will be to be perform known behaviors brilliantly in new locations, under distracting circumstances, or for extended periods of time.
I don’t have to work very hard to decide when to cheer, when to feed, and when to play. All of these rewards will blend seamlessly if you consider your expression of personality to be a natural extension of how you feel on the inside.
Here are a few simple rules if you find this a challenge:
If your dog does something that delights you, express your feelings! Go ahead and back that up with food and toys, but make sure that that your reaction has value to your dog as well. Over time, you will be harder to impress; and those expressions of emotion will naturally go down. To help your dog along, make sure that opportunities for being delighted develop frequently. If your dog hates to work except for one tiny behavior, then I’d spend a lot of time on that one tiny behavior. Start from that point of strength. And if your dog could care less about your enthusiasm, think hard about how you can use food, toys, and tons of personal attention to change that – before you even think about adding work or any other expectations.
Resist the urge to pull energy out of your dog. That is called “cheerleading” and not only does it not work, but it tends to become a bad habit that irritates and exhausts the handler. If you’re irritated or exhausted, your dog is probably tuning you out. Dogs (and people) know the difference between exclamations of delight and jollying. Exclamations of delight result in a warm and fuzzy feeling for the recipient. Jollying makes you an irritation. Don’t go there.
Finally, create contrast between those moments of “you are truly incredible” and “you’re being an ordinary dog”. Below is a very short video clip to illustrate what I mean.
This video was taken at the end of a fabulous training session; Brito had used up all of his “goodness”. You’ll see he ran off to bark at the neighbor’s dog. I’m not angry; he’s just a baby dog and baby dogs have alternative interests. But my energy and level of interaction with him change quite a bit from the tape in the last blog where he was consistently impressing me. You’ll see he comes back to me on his own; that’s unusual and therefore deserves delight and acknowledgement, because it’s unusual (though not shown much on tape).
If we get to the point where he rarely runs off and then he comes back, I will not be delighted. I’ll be annoyed that he ran off in the first place, and I’ll likely simply return him to the house.
So in a nutshell, that is how to reduce chatter. Show how you feel on the inside and you should do pretty well.