GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT
“He listens to his trainer real good.
He just doesn’t listen to me. I still can’t get him to do nothing.”
I’m not against telling a dog no, though there are some people out there who would scalp me for making such a declaration. Many contemporary trainers espouse a purely affirmative delivery system in training. While it’s an admirable notion, I have yet to see it work effectively. That said, I do believe that delivery of the big N-O makes all the difference, and how it is best said depends on the dog. Yet another reason to listen with our eyes, because you are responsible for knowing the inherent temperament of your dog, not the trainer you hired. For me, I know Pacino could outlast any drill sergeant’s diatribe, while Chiquita’s feelings would get hurt if she were exposed to the same admonishment.
Finding the right working tone requires one to always pay close attention to a dog’s immediate reaction. For example, Pacino takes a moment to consider (not process) the information you’ve sent him, regardless of tone; Chiquita hears a tone and immediately reacts to it. Even a stern “Pacino, come!” is met with a pause and a look that says, “What’s in this for me?” “Pacino, off the couch!” is followed by the canine version of a “whatever” look. He always moves but takes his sweet time. Chiquita, on the other hand, I can’t speak to that way, because her eyes will dart nervously, her tail will lower, and she will withdraw. “Off the couch” needs to be delivered very evenly. I first learned how sensitive she is to tone by watching her reaction to my neighbors yelling at each other. With physical things, though, she’s anything but sensitive. She’s built like a mixture of a torpedo and a seal and could wrestle all day and have nothing but fun, but if my tone is a little off, she wants to withdraw.
For the record, my dogs are allowed on the couch when I invite them, but once in a while they’ll take a shot and show up unannounced. When Chiquita was young and I was teaching her the “off” command, I would lead her to her bed and have her sit there, or I would take her to her toys and encourage her to grab one. Telling her “off” was not enough, because she would pace and bide her time until she thought it might be okay to be on the couch. Now she understands what her options are when the couch is not available. The “off” command is not communicating that she’s unwanted. This is a hugely important point in teaching, so I am shouting the following two sentences: Do not tell your dog what you don’t want it to do. Tell your dog what you want it to do.
Never begin a sentence with “I don’t want my dog to____ [insert annoying behavior/habit here].” You will get nowhere very slowly. “I don’t want my dog to freak out when strangers come in.” “I don’t want my dog to relieve himself on the carpet.” “I don’t want my dog to dig holes in the backyard.”
When someone asks you, “What do you want the dog to do?” “Anything but _____” or “Not _____” is not an answer. When I ask people, “What do you want the dog to do?” I get what they don’t want the dog to do a minimum of three times, followed by a vapid stare and eventually a thin smile that yields to an “Aha! I get it.” At this point, they usually admit that they learn more slowly than their dogs, and I thank them for their honesty, give them a hug, and say, “I think we had a breakthrough.” Dogs cannot learn the behavior you want them to perform if you don’t know what it is!
To get our dogs to do the things we want them to do, we must understand what motivates them to behave. At the top of the list, dogs want to spend time with their owners. They want praise, affection, downtime, and playtime. Once a dog’s fundamental needs are met, these are its primary wishes. And when these wishes are met, we have a balanced dog.
The term “balanced dog” is thrown around a lot, and its meaning has had bleach poured all over it. It has come to mean, more or less, that a dog has a friendly disposition, but that is incomplete. I believe the genesis of this phrase comes from the expression “A balanced dog has titles on both ends.” When a show dog qualifies for a championship at a conformation show, a “Ch” (short for champion) is added as a prefix to its registered name. A conformation show (aka a dog show) is a competition to see which dog best “conforms” to the breed and embodies its essence. The same prefix designation holds true for dogs crowned the victors of performance championships, such as endorsed flyball and agility competitions. Should the dog go on to win other titles outside of the main conformation and performance competitions, or gain certification such as water rescue dog, these titles are added as suffixes to its name, hence “titles on both ends” (of the name).
The expression came into vogue in the general dog public as debate stirred around purebred breeding, with the correct claim that overbreeding led to “imbalanced dogs.”
The reality is that a balanced dog has balanced owners who provide a balanced life for the dog (yes, that’s three in one sentence). This means a routine: a sound diet, steady exercise, mental stimulation, structure, and, of course, affection. Cesar Millan can also be credited with popularizing the expression and his definition is darn good: To him, a balanced dog is comfortable in its own skin and in any environment. It is secure in its role in the family, has activities that it can perform with others or alone, and is largely void of nervous urgency, desperation, and the need for continuous attention.
When we begin training, it is helpful if the dog is balanced or at least in a balanced place. This means that prior to training your dog has received some exercise, affection, reward-based interaction, and a chance to play with a coveted toy or two, and is now eager for reward-based affection. In the long haul, the toys and treats are just part of the repertoire of a top-flight dog parent. The dog enjoys them because they came from you, and its wish to partake in training is in order to engage in structured work/play. Once a dog understands what training is all about, receiving your praise will mean the world to it, though praise in and of itself is not something dogs connect to instinctually. Dogs come to associate praise as a good thing because it is often followed by treats and affection.
The ultimate reward for most dogs is food, and every dog has some food drive. We use food as motivation because it works and works well. Feeding a dog its meals as a reward in training spurs on learning, and being hand-fed by an owner is an intimate touch. I typically prefer food as a reward because toys are difficult to negotiate with during training. It takes any dog but a second to down a piece of kibble, while wresting a chew toy from a dog mid-lesson can be disruptive. Kibble is a term that means to “grind or divide into particles or pellets,” but in dog vernacular it refers to prepared dry food, which I don’t recommend. When I use the term “kibble,” I intend to refer to any healthy food (turkey is my favorite) that can be broken into small, easily consumed bites.
A well-socialized dog may be motivated to learn from interaction alone, but we’re not afraid to make life easy, so we add the element of food. Even if a dog has lower food drive than most, training makes the food more interesting.
Food is a tool in training. It is not the reason that your dog accepts training. We carefully avoid getting into the business of bribing. When dogs are off performing their experiments and we call them, we don’t wave food in order for them to join us. They make the choice to partake. We don’t use food to change behavior; rather, dogs choose to engage in behavior modification games (such as training) in which food is involved as a reward. We lure the dog in by offering it the chance to socialize and play with us, and, hey, guess what? It just so happens there’s some food in it. As mentioned earlier, once the fundamentals of a game are mastered, the activity becomes the reward. In my experience, dogs get to a place where training or performing the command itself is pleasurable. Once this juncture is reached, food can be weaned out altogether or may still be used as an accelerant in teaching.
■ Portion control: Dogs will work for barely a lick of food. I mean this. Without exception, people overfeed their dogs when training. Replace a handful of kibble for a single shred of turkey or something similar and further reward the dog with your time, attention, interest, and affection.
■ Affection control: For dogs that aren’t particularly food driven, affection often works. Praise and affection should be meted out in a fashion that doesn’t make the dog too excitable.
THE SPICE OF LIFE
There are reward systems supported by trainers that remind me of cable television plans. When a dog does a basic thing well, offer a basic reward; for more challenging tasks, serve up a silver or gold reward . . . all the way up to platinum, I’d guess. I don’t think this is necessary, though I understand that a dog’s mojo may match what it’s working for. Exhibiting portion control keeps dogs interested as does varying the treats; just make sure there’s nothing too cumbersome or tough to chew on. When you’re teaching something new, new treats can help. Special occasions also call for special actions. Despite my insistence on portion and even affection control, when your dog loses the training wheels and does something truly laudable, have special treats on hand to mark the occasion.
SAY IT LIKE YOU’D WANT TO HEAR IT
Clear, crisp, and calm is the aim. Deliver praise and appreciation evenly, consistently, and enthusiastically, but don’t be over-the-top. Don’t fill the air with talk. Commands and teaching are being delivered to an animal with astounding senses, and it will zone in on everything until it can parse out relevant from useless information. Prattling on makes this difficult to impossible. Remember my run-on sentence from earlier? Here it is again: “Wait, come, look at me, pay attention, good boy, good dog baby, now come, sit down, you can do it, that’s it, come on come on puppy dog booby baby you can do it, sit, sit, sit down already, just sit, like this, sit, sit, sit.” When people garble or speak in whole sentences, dogs are now being asked to pick out key words. I tend to drone in a happy way, “Gooood boooyyyhhh” (or “giiirrrrlll”), but I don’t notably raise my voice. Drawling the words also allows me to transition from one activity to the next and keep the “good vibrations” going. Some trainers can be highly effective while remaining stoic and near silent, but I think that makes it more challenging. The one thing that does distract dogs is the “irrationally exuberant” approach. The loud evangelical sorts can slow the learning and set the bar awfully high for themselves. When the zest begins to wane, the dog will wonder what it did wrong, and anything short of a parade will sound like disappointment.
You may recall that I used an “all-in” level of enthusiasm with Maya. I understand that this somewhat contradicts what I’ve just said. Again, I preach guidelines not gospel. These are general rules to which there are exceptions. Maya’s previous experiences with instruction had dulled her to learning and I surmised that she would need to be drawn into a game. That said, guidelines and general rules are not absolutes but do apply in the large majority of cases.
It is important to develop a training style with a basic understanding of these principles and an ability to use them. As you’ll read below in “The Zen of Training,” I encourage owners to be more boisterous and demonstrative in issuing praise or treats. Being clear, crisp, and calm as a foundational style gives us something to deviate from as we develop our own training style in accordance with our dog.
THE ZEN OF TRAINING
Once a dog gets on board with training and the owner feels the winds of momentum blowing sweetly against their back, things can get fun. To this point we’ve been diligent in becoming good-postured trainers who deliver our messages calmly, clearly, and crisply. We exercise portion control with aplomb. We are steadfast in making sure our dog is in a good working environment and not distracted by any superfluous movement or talk. What’s next? It’s time to let our hair down and let things get fluffy. “Keep it fluffy” is something I often say to my clients. People concentrate so hard on their dog’s every move that they end up looking like our national security is at stake. It should be fun, light, and fluffy. Once in the groove, hand out treats with gusto. As I said before, once you’re under way and the dog understands what’s in it for them, enthusiasm and interactivity can be the “rocket fuel” of training. Between the legs, behind the back, extra treats for extra-good work. Keeping it fluffy staves off boredom; looking stern and acting bored do not bode well for the dog (or you).
Learning should be a structured playtime for you and your dog. This is your time together, and play you must. Dogs will associate play with learning, and keeping the spirit of play in the air is a panacea for humans and a boon for a dog’s demeanor. Through training, we build trust and gain our dog’s confidence. A dog’s innate sense of curiosity is forged, fostered, and channeled, and through training, a bona fide value system is constructed. I said “value system.” That sounds good and is yet another phrase that gets thrown around. What does it mean in relation to dogs? A dog’s domesticated purpose is to work, and training becomes a job that can engender a genuine sense of accomplishment. Dogs come to value their time with you, learning, performing commands, and partaking in their role as family member. That said, sitting, staying, heeling, and coming are not exactly what dogs were brought on this earth to do. Please understand that they may find following basic commands unnatural at first, if not a little irritating. For a dog to do its best, it must sense your pleasure. When it does, a dog will recognize its value, and its temperament will shift. Tug-of-war, fetch, and physical games assimilate easily into a dog’s psyche, while modern-day learning must be cultivated. Rewards in the form of owner enthusiasm, affection, and some treats are all integral components of the process. Once dogs understand the value proposition of performing commands, they will do so with zeal, and it will be good times all the way around. When training is going well, reward your dog in a dizzying array of fashions. “Dizzying” may be pushing it, but don’t be a somnambulist handing out the goodies in a solemn state. You can always go back to clear, calm, and crisp, but sometimes having your dog jump up to take the treat, or chase you for it, is just what the doctor ordered. The idea is to make learning fun by “keeping it fluffy.”
So how do dogs best communicate? We know they have outstanding olfactory systems, but dogs are visual animals that do their very best to understand us. They don’t learn words as we do; rather, they come to associate an image or action with a sound and respond accordingly. This may be obvious, yet we continually fail them by being unclear in our communication. “Mushing” is the term I use for people who are inexplicit with their voice and/or body when dealing with a dog. They often slur their words together while simultaneously throwing up indistinct hand signals; hence mushing. Culprits of mushing, interestingly enough, often have vague or unrealistic expectations of what they want the dog to do.
What we say and what dogs hear can be very different. Think of dogs as hyper-literal animals. From both a visual and an auditory standpoint, what they see and hear is what they get. Aurally speaking, their need for precision is greater than the most frustrating automated phone menu. “Come,” “C’mere,” “Come here,” “Fido, come on,” “Come on,” “Come on, boy/girl,” “Come, boy/girl,” “Here,” “Here, doggy,” and so forth are all different to a dog’s ear.
Given that they learn visually, hand gestures and body language must be definitive or they will be misinterpreted. Communicating with dogs is one of the few things in life that is truly black and white. When you get the hang of being extremely coherent in voice and body, it is also quite enjoyable. The best possible way I know to illustrate this is to tell you the story of Mr. Roboto.
THE TALE OF MR. ROBOTO
A vicuña-colored year-old golden retriever/Irish setter mix named Oliver, or Ollie as he was called, was part of a great family comprised of four individual humans: an inked-up teenage daughter, a quiet son of seventeen, an outspoken matriarch, and a super-nice, easygoing husband to go with one confused and hyperactive Ollie. Everyone had his or her own way of doing things, and each person’s approach to the dog could not have been more dissimilar. Ollie knew how to sit well enough, and I began there; escorting the family out to the backyard to have them practice the heeling technique (which I will cover in Chapter 7, “Command Central”). To make it extremely simple, the heeling technique is basically a dynamic walk/sit exercise that involves walking with your dog a few clear steps before coming to a stop. You then instruct the dog to sit alongside you, with a hand signal and the word “heel,” before resuming again. When the exercise is done well, it’s not quite balletic but is pretty graceful. When it’s not done well, it’s a herky-jerky, asynchronous practice where all parties are completely out of step.
The two kids had the most interaction with Ollie, so they went first. It was a disaster. It wasn’t even close, and Ollie immediately became frustrated. I shot Dave a look that said, “This is going to be a long day.”
Then the outspoken mom went and somehow was worse than the kids. Finally, it was the dad’s turn. I was feeling pretty hopeless as one low-key guy slowly stepped up to the plate. I handed him the leash and wanted to cover my eyes. In his day-to-day, he spent very little time with Ollie, but he was willing to give it a shot. And then . . . something amazing happened.
Ollie followed his lead as if they’d been doing it for years. Dave and I started cracking up as we both caught on to what was happening. Dave quipped, “Rhythmless nation,” and he was right. The father was nervous to perform in front of his family, which made him literally uptight. He walked more upright than I thought possible. Each one of his steps was the exact distance as the step prior, and he progressed in a long, bounding, and rigid march. His hand gestures were so stiff that they looked comical but proved expert. His daughter said, “You should see him dance,” but Dad got it right. He became the model, and the other family members did their best to imitate him. The results were notably better. In their initial efforts, Ollie was picking up on everything: For example, the son walked with his head down and his hand in his pocket—this was the same hand that held the reward, and predictably, Ollie fixated on the pocket at times. There were so many misleading cues being sent to Oliver, until Dad came along and showed us all up. If I ever doubt how clear one needs to be with dogs, I will always remember the man we dubbed “Mr. Roboto.” Now let’s break it down:
Mr. Roboto had mastered the art of separation: separate and distinct steps, hand gestures, and movements. When he first attempted the hand signal he was not doing anything other than standing erect and moving his open palm upward from his belt to his chest. “Right in the strike zone,” as we say. When Dad took his three steps, he wasn’t flailing, swaggering, or sauntering; he was forward marching. When he stopped, it was sharp. He deliberately moved the treat from one hand to the other to reward Oliver and flawlessly repeated the steps. It was something to behold.
A dog’s sensitivity to physical gestures must be respected. Any habit or tic will likely gain some meaning to a dog. Whenever I train, I notice that the most difficult thing for owners to master is their own body. In the case of Oliver, the two kids were the walking cautionary tales. The son was a very slim, soft-spoken high school senior with loose arms and a loping gait. By the time he finished his three steps and turned to Oliver, his limbs were all over the place and his head always ended up turned away from Oliver. He would then mumble, “Heel,” to no effect. With practice, he did just as poorly but began to punctuate his third step with a dramatic half-spin so he could actually face the dog before looking away again and mumbling, “Heel.”
The daughter walked hard, and her left arm swung up in an aggressive gait. She, too, had an affinity for looking down and away. After three steps she turned to Oliver and shouted, “Oliver, heel!” Ollie looked shocked. By her third effort, Oliver was used to it and began to jump and prance as if someone had asked him to wrestle. When the command is clean and definitive, the movement should be subtle, and even the kids improved eventually when they imitated their father.
The other takeaway from the story of Mr. Roboto is the need for consistency. When you have a dog that appears to listen to a certain person, it is very often the case that this person is the most consistent in voice and body. In rare instances, that person is a Mr. Roboto sort, but most of the time, he or she has paid close attention to what the dog previously responded to and replicated it.
Our variations in voice and body language can cause a dog to appear as if it has not learned the command. In such cases the dog has picked up on certain cues and associated them with the command but does not always receive these same needed cues when being taught. Ultimately, it is up to us to find the needed degree of consistency.