Archives for posts with tag: teaching

I love love love answering questions. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve been to many events where I’ve put out a donations box with an “Ask the Trainer” sign and reveled in the challenge of coming up with a helpful answer to every question. 

When I am with a client or in a class/seminar, I will answer the same question over and over again without hesitation, knowing it can take many repetitions to get the message across and the answer to stick. 

The questions serve many purposes: They not only allow me to share the most up-to-date information available, but also they give me important insights into what comprises the POGs’ database of information, how motivated they are to work, what is lacking, what is causing the problem. 

Among these many questions are productive, insightful ones which make me glow with happiness. But there is one question that I am almost guaranteed to hear at the beginning of any POG contact; unfortunately, is also the one I have determined is the most destructive, the most counterproductive, and the biggest obstacle to fixing any problem I’ve been summoned to handle.

It is this: What do I do when Sparky does [bad thing]?

The “bad thing” can be anything from doesn’t come to pulls on walks to jumps to growls to bites. It really doesn’t matter what the Thing Dog Does You Don’t Want Dog to Do is. The problem is the question itself. The problem is that the POG is asking it at all.

Asking that question tells me that the POG is:

 – being reactive instead of proactive, meaning s/he is not preventing the “bad” behavior from happening so it can be forgotten and replaced.

 – allowing the “bad” behavior to continue, meaning the dog is practicing and reinforcing that behavior over and over.

 – focused on the wrong thing: correcting the “bad” behavior instead of creating the “good” behavior.

 – sees the unacceptable behavior as something “bad” that needs to be “corrected” instead of a habit that needs to be replaced. (Dogs don’t have a right/wrong value system, so it is an exercise in futility to try to teach them right from wrong.)

When I hear that question, I know that the technique and timing of the loving, caring POG’s actions are so far off that the result is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what s/he is trying to accomplish. To wit: The POG is making the situation worse instead of better. 

How can that be? Here’s a typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky jumps?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog has jumped, POG reacts in one of many ways — from saying No/Off/Down/Sit, pushing the dog down, holding the dog down or some less-kind ways I won’t go into here. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, etc. all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior. 

All these great things happen AFTER the jump has occurred. Dog is satisfied with the result of the jump and learns that every time he wants attention like that, a jump is exactly the way to get it. 

Meanwhile, POG thinks that the problem has been successfully handled because the jumping has stopped. 

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Jump => Get Attention. POG has not corrected anything, the jumping will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

Here’s another typical scenario:

The question: What should I do when Sparky pulls on the leash?

 – Usual scenario: Once dog is pulling, POG reacts in one many ways — from saying No, jerking the dog back, telling dog to sit, winding the leash up until the dog is beside POG in a tight-leash death grip, speeding up to let dog get some energy out/do her business/enjoy her walk and hoping for a slowdown later. The dog is talked to, touched, petted, treated, etc. and also gets to keep walking, all of which are ways of reinforcing behavior.

All these things happen AFTER the dog has pulled. Dog is satisfied with the results of pulling and learns that whenever he wants to get to something and/or get attention, all he has to do is pull.

Meanwhile, POG thinks s/he has successfully communicated with the dog because eventually, from tiredness, satiation or pure luck, the dog walks on a loose leash for awhile.

The truth is the following pattern has been taught: Pull => Get Where I Want to Go. POG has not corrected anything, the pulling will recur. POG reaction will get more intense, further reinforcing the behavior. 

See a pattern? Good! Want to create a different one that will actually address the problem behavior? 

The better question

There is a similar but much much better question to ask that puts POGs in proactive/teaching mode instead of reactive/corrective mode. 

It is: What’s the best way to deal with a dog that does X?

Now we’re talking! And here’s the simple answer: 

  1. Prevent the behavior you don’t like.
  2. Teach a new behavior you do like using fun and motivating rewards like food.
  3. Ask for and reward the new behavior in the situation the old behavior usually happens in.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat!!

And if the old behavior does happen (which it will because no one is perfect)? Then interrupt quietly (that means no talking), slowly, with as little energy as possible. Wait for a calm down/different choice from your dog. Pile on the rewards for that. Over time, your dog will make the practical choice to doing the new rewarding behavior instead of the old behavior that no longer delivers for him.

And you will never have to ask the Worst Question Ever again!

Need more? See my books Reverse Dog Training: A Fresh Perspective for Solving Common Problems and I’ve Never Had a Dog like This! How Modern Society Has Impacted Our Best Friend and What We Can Do About It. 

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My new client had obviously had a tiring day with her rescue dog. We had been working on some reactivity issues with visitors, and unfortunately Thanksgiving got in the way of our teaching plan. While the day wasn’t a failure, both POG and dog tried hard but also made mistakes throughout the day. By the time her relatives left, my client was burnt to a crisp.

She emailed a report to me, and she ended with a question: “…have you ever worked with a family who isn’t able to turn this behavior around?”
I knew this was a bad-day/exhaustion-based question, so I gave her my usual responses (yes, but: rarely; you didn’t fail, nothing bad happened so something good happened; this is expected; you did fine; she did fine; you can do it; back to work!). My answer satisfied her; in fact, she reported she had since had a great session with her dog. We were back on track.

Yet, for some reason, her question niggled at me. Of course, I had clients who couldn’t reach their goals for their dog. The reasons varied from life changes to “I am afraid she’ll hurt someone.” The common thread comes down to the POG being physically and/or emotionally unable to continue. Essentially, they give up.

It happens to all of us, DLSIs/trainers and POGs alike: We get that challenging dog, and/or we have a spectacularly bad day, and/or a series of bad days/events, and we run out of coping juice. We go into meltdown mode, selecting from the despair menu of crumpled crying, primal screaming, boisterous swearing, redirected anger, manic cleaning and/or yard work, and extreme self-doubt (that’s my list anyway). Generally, after a while, we pick ourselves up, shake ourselves off and get back to work.

But not always. And that got me to wondering: What if I had given up? 

The Tawny Test

My darling girl Tawny was a challenging dog. And that is putting it mildly. She had a lot of issss-ues, if you will, and she was stuck with someone who had her own issss-ues plus, unfortunately, a similar personality–quick-reacting, impatient, intolerant. We were gasoline and a match. Bad combo! Add in the fact that I was wet behind the ears as a trainer, just starting out and with a lot to learn about what “dog training” really was, and oh my, what a recipe for disaster. 

In my group glasses, I would hold up a piece of paper with stuff written on both sides. This was Tawny’s “bad dog” list–all the behaviors we had fixed, from jumping and digging to separation anxiety and reactivity (“aggression”). I stated I had to write it down so I wouldn’t forget any of it because the problems were all gone, but emphasized that it didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it was often a slow, hard slog for both of us as we worked to understand each other and learned how to communicate. I was slower on the uptake most of the time, and amazingly Tawny for some reason was very tolerant of my flailings and failings then. And still is, I might add. There were times when I blew it, she blew it, and we both blew it. There were times when something would work for awhile and then suddenly stop working. There were times when I questioned whether I should even have a dog, much less try to teach one anything.

But each time, after the ceremonial wailing and rending of garments, in fairly short order, I slid back into the driver’s seat and eased back onto the course. It was unthinkable to me to do anything else. Tawny was depending on me to sort this out with her. Had I given up, I would have let her down, and also let down all the other dogs who needed my help. I would have let myself down too. I couldn’t let that happen. Quite simply, failure was not an option. 

What I didn’t know then but know now is that arduous, tortuous journey produced marvelous, far-reaching results. I have the dog I always wanted–safe, reliable, well-mannered, a joy most of the time–an achievement I could barely have imagined at the beginning. Even more unimaginable is how much she changed me, pushing me to be a better trainer, better POG, and better human being. Had I not kept trying, neither of us would be the beings we are now. We both hung in there, and today we both are reaping the rewards. 

This is especially meaningful to me now, because I am in a personal situation that allows me little time to manage anything in my life, especially an ill-behaved dog. But she is performing majestically, and I thank her every day for it.

Learning resilience

In trainer circles, we talk about the resilience of dogs, how some bounce back better than others. My dog taught me how to be resilient, and I will be forever grateful I didn’t give up on her, or me. I judge no one who makes a different decision. This is simply my story. I hope it helps someone else struggling to hang on in a bad moment.

More help can be found on my Trained With Kindness (TWiKi) site (“Frustration Emergency?“) [http://www.trainedwithkindness.com/take-action-now-heres-how/frustration-emergency-read-now/] and my CP-HIP site (Problem-Solving Formula e-booklet on my Store page). [http://cp-hipdogs.com/train/shop/]

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