Easy Steps to Help Training Make Sense to Your Dog


Poodle going over jump. Photo by M. Nicole Fischer.

Poodle going over jump. Photo by M. Nicole Fischer.

ESTABLISH A PARTNERSHIP BUILT ON TRUST

As you learn to communicate easily with a dog, a partnership is born. A dog is much more willing to work for a handler who is clear with instructions and takes the time to listen to his partner. Partnerships of all kinds are built on trust. Your dog must trust that you will tell him exactly what you want him to do and that you will not correct him unfairly for your mistakes. He must trust that you are willing to allow him to make honest errors along the road to learning, thus granting him “the right to be wrong.” You must trust that if you have taught your dog how to do something, he can do it on his own, without you right next to him.

DOGS LEARN BY SOLVING SIMPLE PROBLEMS

After years of observing dogs solve problems, I have learned that dogs remember best what they discover. Dogs that figure out how to get into the garbage rarely have to practice the skill to remember how to do it. With this in mind, much of my training is geared toward letting dogs discover on their own what I want them to know.

As dogs work to solve a problem, they make many mistakes along the way. They try what does not work before they discover what does. I believe that dogs learn by trial and error. If you accept this theory, then you must be willing to allow dogs to make errors or you will stifle learning. Error-free learning is not my goal.

If a dog is corrected when he is wrong, he becomes afraid to be wrong and therefore afraid to experiment and try new approaches to solving his problems. …There are times in training when dogs should be corrected, but never for honest attempts that just happen to be wrong. Most of the time, if your dog offers the incorrect response, ignore it and begin again. By not drawing attention to the mistake, the dog will forget it and focus on the behaviors that seem to work to solve his problem.

WHEN LEARNING, DOGS OFTEN SLOW DOWN

Just like people, when dogs are learning new things, it is common for their actions to slow down. As they begin to understand and gain confidence, the speed increases naturally….When dogs attempt to learn things at top speed, it often takes them longer to master the skill than a dog that slows down to learn. …Allow the dog to learn at whatever speed is comfortable. Know that, once your dog understands, you can build more drive and speed into the task. Understanding and intensity of learning are not necessarily manifested through rapid movements.

THE POWER OF TIME

The “Power of Time” is one of the most effective ways to change behavior in dogs. It is important to realize that  you, as the handler, control time by deciding when training begins and when it ends. You control a dog’s life by dictating when he eats, when he relieves himself, when he rests, and when he works. How can you use this power in … training?

Consider this example: A dog understands the command “down” and does not choose to lie down on the pause table. The handler commands “down,” and the dog simply stands there. Now the handler waits for the dog to make a decision; either the dog will sit, lie down, or get off of the table. No dog will stay on a table forever. If the dogs sits, the handler again commands “down” and waits. If the dog gets off of the table, the handler puts him back on the table and again instructs “table, down.” When the dog realizes that life as he knows it does not continue until he lies down, he will eventually comply. Once a dog grasps the concept that you control time, you have passive power over even the strongest-willed dog. The key to tapping into the power of time is patience. Sometimes you can wait up to twenty minutes. Do not give in; you will always win, for you will outlive the dog!

TRAINING SHOULD MAKES SENSE TO THE DOG

Training should make sense to both the trainer and the dog. Have a reason for why you teach something a certain way and for why you use a specific hand motion….Skills need to be broken down and taught so that you are confident that your dog understands what is expected of him at every level. Handling should be consistent and fair. Dogs should be corrected when they deliberately disobey (“feel they have a choice”) or become distracted (once they have been taught to pay attention), but never for making honest mistakes.

Not all dogs and people have equal abilities. You need to believe in yourself and in the ability of your dog. A successful team relies on a partnership in which the handler does his or her part of teaching properly, and the dog does his part of performing correctly what he has been taught.

Excerpted from Diane L. Bauman and Jessica Ajoux’s book, Agility Start to Finish.

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