Acclimation means allowing your dog to become familiar with an environment. This takes place before any engagement or work starts.
How important is this to me?
It’s one of the three most important things that I’ve learned in the past ten years. The other two are honoring a dog’s emotional state above all, and allowing for choice in work.
Combine knowledge of acclimation with teaching your dog to drive you to work and match your dog’s overall energy when you interact, and you may well find that your dog’s attention to you and ability to focus and learn SKYROCKETS. Is that worth an additional ten minutes of your time?
I’m not exaggerating. Let your dog breathe and you will be shocked at the return on your time investment. That small courtesy is non-negotiable with a nervous dog or a dog with low working drives, and it’s just generally respectful with stable dogs or dogs that always try to work hard.
Can you imagine taking a human child-student to a new place, blocking their view of everything around them, and then aggressively insisting that they work on their spelling while we shoved food or dangled toys in front of their face to prevent them from looking around? Or put them back in the car if they still tried to get around us? Whatever gave us the idea that this makes sense with dogs?
Do not force your dog to interact with you; you’re making yourself a misery! It doesn’t matter if your use of force involves a high value cookie in front of the nose, or a tug toy waving wildly around your dog’s face, or a collar correction, because the end result is the same – the dog is compelled to work without choice regardless of whether they are ready to be there.
Think about it. The last time you decided to train, how much time did you give your dog to walk around, explore, sniff, sightsee, etc? Without badgering? Just letting your dog breathe, settle in, and enjoy the general working environment without interruption?
Historically, I have tried to be an “efficient” trainer because I am often training under time limitations. That means I would set up my working space, get my dog, let them pee and look around for around one minute, and then I’d go to work regardless of the dog’s level of offered engagement. That worked, sort of, but with some dogs I spent an awful lot of energy trying to keep them engaged. I’ve learned that I was wrong to do that. It made training much harder for both of us. I’m done trying to be more “more interesting” than the environment. I created a lot of unnecessary stress in some dogs and outright avoidance in others.
And now? I fully expect to spend just as much time acclimating as I do actually training. So…ten minutes of exploring. Maybe even twenty minutes, depending on the dog. And at the end of that time, guess what I have? A dog that is excited, focused and eager to work for me.
And if after all that time that dog is still not interested in working with me? In spite of the fact that I have classic motivators somewhere, know how to interact with my dog in an enjoyable manner, and provide interesting and fun activities? What will happen if I start begging and bribing? I’ll get the dog’s attention AS LONG AS I HAVE COOKIES OR CORRECTIONS FRONT AND CENTER. How many competitions are allowing for that these days?
Wouldn’t it be smarter to blow off training at that time, and find places with more suitable conditions for training while you grow your dog’s love of work? Then you can see what happens over time – your dog begins to internally generate the focus needed to work even when conditions are trying -because you have trained them to use their intrinsic interest instead of applying external motivators.
I didn’t even realize that my way of thinking was “unique” until the emails started showing up after I introduced this idea in my current online class. Apparently, many people subscribe to the “force interaction instantly from the moment the crate door opens” philosophy, and if that doesn’t work, then “push harder! Tug harder! Get more intense! Crate longer!” In effect, if it’s not working then more must be better.
Since when in life is “more” of whatever is not working the right answer?
The following video is three minutes long. In the first two minutes there is NO indication that Brito wants to work. When he’s ready, he lets me know. This acclimation period is edited down from about ten minutes so be prepared to wait much longer than two minutes. Note that Brito finally indicates a readiness to work without my showing a cookie or a toy. I don’t need to beg with motivators because he understands the entire process from acclimation to engagement to work to a classic food or toy reward, or to more engagement in a more advanced version.