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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Training = Freedom

On our our dog training business website we have this Sue Ailsby quote: "Training doesn't limit a dog. Training frees a dog.  My dog, being trained, is free - free to walk with me, free to ride with me, free to play off-leash with other dogs, free to learn and run.   An untrained dog is "free" to sit in the backyard where he can get into as little trouble as possible."  Boy, if that doesn't say it all, I don't know what does!

Too many times we run into people who think their dog is "dominant" or "stubborn" or "stupid" and can't learn -- so instead of seeking a training program that will work for them and their dog, they give up.  Their dog becomes "free to sit in the backyard where he can get into as little trouble as possible."  Or worse their dog becomes the neighborhood menace, hooked to a chain or confined to the backyard, barking and lunging at everyone and everything and occasionally getting loose, sending the whole neighborhood into a tizzy.

This does not have to be the case.  I have yet to meet a dog that can't be taught SOMETHING.  Dogs are usually not stupid -- in fact, just the opposite -- they are usually very smart and they have got their families "trained" exactly the way they want them!!!  My favorite families to work with are the families who think their dog is too stubborn to learn and when I teach them how to use the clicker and some yummy treats, they see the "stubborn" in their dog become enthusiasm for learning.  I don't subscribe to dominance theories, so when someone thinks their dog is dominant, we talk about the specific behaviors and what they really mean in canine language (not human language -- remember dogs are dogs and people are people -- it's downright dangerous to attribute one set of characteristics to the other species!).  The one thing for everyone to remember when they are working with their dogs is that we are trying to teach them English as a second language -- as much as our dogs are "tuned in" to us -- they still do not understand English until we teach them what our utterances mean.

All this being said, every dog and person is unique, living in a unique environment, and applying "cookie cutter" dog training to these unique situations may or may not work.  I much prefer to formulate individual, dynamic training plans for dogs and their humans that work for them.  Even in our group classes, our focus is on the individual teams and their efforts, accomplishments, and progress.  We also always keep in mind that not everyone wants to teach their dogs the same things -- some people want a dog that walks nicely on a leash and sits while waiting for dinner, other people want their dog to have a huge repertoire of tricks to share with friends and family, others want to compete in dog sports, and still others want to do therapy work with their beloved canine.  All are wonderful, attainable goals, but the road getting there can be very different.

There are some things that are present in all training plans -- attention, focus, and reinforcement.  We must get the dog's attention, teach them to focus, and reinforce behaviors we want to occur again (ignoring undesired behaviors and/or redirection are also factors, but I was keeping my list positive!).  The rest of the training plan is unique and specific to you and your dog.

Let's say you want your puppy to politely greet people (without jumping up on them) -- what would that training plan most likely look like?  First I would have you "warm up" or "charge" the clicker -- this is a process by which we teach our dog that the yummy treat (primary reinforcement) comes when he hears the click (secondary reinforcement).  Once puppy knows this, then we start clicking and treating for eye attention and name attention -- click and treat when puppy looks you in the eye and when he responds to his name.  Once he is actively playing this game, we start actively working on polite greetings.  When you greet your dog, keep it calm and "normal" -- crazy, high-pitched, loud, emotional greetings will result in the same things in puppy.  When puppy responds the way you want him to -- at our house it's either four feet on the floor, a sit, or a down -- click and treat and greet!  When puppy is jumping, being crazy, etc., we ignore the puppy until the desired behavior happens -- then click, treat, and greet.  Keep this greeting calm and "normal" so puppy doesn't get too excited again.  Then we "take it on the road" and work with other people -- first, family members and familiar faces at home, and working up to strangers in strange places.  It is not necessary in this training plan to teach your dog to sit or down first -- those are naturally occurring behaviors and will happen without a cue from you.  Pretty soon you will have a puppy that immediately sits or downs or stands calmly when a guest arrives in your home without any cue from you!  Pretty amazing, isn't it?

Find a trainer who recognizes the individuality of both you and your dog.  Train your dog with a plan you feel comfortable and confident with.  Give your dog the gift of freedom that only training can bring.  Enjoy the journey, it's amazing, rewarding, and worth every step.

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