I watch people train dogs for a living.
One thing I see is people silently staring at their dogs, handing over cookies for behaviors they like and withholding cookies for error. The currency is cookies.
If you use food as your primary commodity for developing a relationship, then you might find your relationship feels very…hollow. And if I ask you about your lack of sincere interaction, you might tell me that your dog is independent or doesn’t care about you so you don’t bother with it. That’s certainly possible. The other possibility is that how you are choosing to interact is creating that disengaged dynamic.
How about starting and ending each training session with some sincere form of interaction that your dog enjoys? It could be a belly rub. It could be a game of chase. It could just be happy talk and pleasant eye contact. Connect. Not with cookies. Not with toys. Just you. Connect – and then train. And when you end? Connect again. If you cannot find a way to do this right now, ask yourself how you might get there.
On the plus side, I can see that dogs trained this way clearly chooses their behaviors – to opt in and earn classic food reinforcement or to opt out and experience…nothing. But what I don’t see is the development of the underlying relationship – you and your dog, that will glue your team together under pressure or when the classic motivators are gone.
And then I see the opposite. I watch people who are “on” their dogs non-stop. Second by second, attempting to control every thought, movement, and behavior that their dog might express. Good or bad, but never relaxed and simply enjoying the process of training.
And what is the end result of this controlling approach? As always, it depends on the temperament of the dog and the skills of the handler, but it seems to range from a stressy intense worker who channels that emotion into the work to a dog that takes off at the first hint that the trainer has stopped paying attention. It’s not hard to see why the chance to escape from the physical or emotional control is hard to resist, hence- the dog leaves the moment the owner lets down their guard, or, when given choice in the matter, never opts into work in the first place.
Why is “middle” so hard to achieve? Maybe because the right answer varies by dog – one dog’s “middle” is smothering or disconnected to another. Maybe beacuse handlers have their own opinions; what they are comfortable with and their preconceived notions about how a dog should behave. Maybe beacuse handlers are working so hard to learn the skills that they forget to enjoy the process. Maybe because professional dog trainers are good at training dogs to perform specific behaviors, but are less good at training humans in the underlying relationship skills. Regardless of why it happens, I certainly see the results when people cannot find middle.
Here’s the goal. Develop a warm relationship with your dog. “Warm” means that you sincerely acknowledge what you like within training and life as a whole. That could include food or toys, but it really needs to be more. It needs to be you as the basis. Set up circumstances so that the dog can choose to be with you – to train and to learn – because they have learned that it works for them. And if your dog opts in – don’t get intense. But don’t get clinical either.
Find the middle. Express how you feel! If you’re pleased with what is happening – let your dog know rather than having the cookies do the work for you. And if you’re not pleased – consider your options. Maybe just let your dog go back to doing not much of anything. You don’t have to add control, but you also don’t have to try to ratchet training up so that your dog is compelled to stay. Just let them go. And see what happens, over time, when you offer sincere warmth for interaction and simply neutral existence for the alternatives.
If you’re not sure how you’re doing then videotape a training session and watch it. Do you look like a disconnected pez dispenser? That’s bad. Work to look like a human who loves their dog. Or do you look like a neurotic parent supervising a child on the edge of a cliff? That’s bad too. There is no cliff. Let your dog discover on his own just how much you have to offer.
And on another note…congratulations to me! This blog has been nominated for a Maxwell Award for “Best dog blog!” Even better, my book, “Beyond the Back Yard: Train Your Dog to Listen Anytime, Anywhere!” has ALSO been nominated in the category of Best Training Book. Yay for me!