Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance, Part III

Please be sure that you have read parts I and II to this series.

The one problem people run into when attempting to correct their dogs without having been taught the hows, whys and what tools will make their lives easier, is mostly a matter of consistency and clear communication. Motivation is also a problem, as is timing (if you have read the Secrets book, these words should look mighty familiar!). Usually, by the time these people are pulling back on the dog’s collar, they are reacting to the dog’s actions and behavior, rather than being proactive and catching the dog while they still have time to refocus its attention. Admittedly, it’s easier to just go off in your own world and wait for the dog to make a mistake, and that’s fine to some extent, but you need to know when it’s more productive to set a dog up for failure and correct, rather than set up for success and reward the dog when it does the right thing. The best training tool you have besides the leash and collar, is proactivity.

It’s the same concept as defensive driving: you are the only perfect being on the road, and everyone else out there is a jerk. You just have to keep your eye out for cues that predict an idiot move one of those jerks might make, such as cutting in front of you or running the red light. Use this same knowledge and apply it to your dog to predict where its attention is going so you can use an appropriate correction to being it’s attention back to what is right: maybe your dog is oogling the duvet as it’s appetizer. Best to banish that thought BEFORE any teeth touch furniture, rather than resorting to frustration and possible over-punishment once the damage has begun. Out on walks, you see a dog off in the distance and it’s coming your way. Best to keep an eye on it and also watch your dog for signals that you’re losing his focus BEFORE you are surprised by the sudden presence of a strange dog, and now yours is out at the end of his leash barking madly, and when you DO try to correct appropriately, they mean absolutely nothing to your dog. It’s as if he can’t even feel them, and this is when many people throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Correcting him doesn’t work.” Or, if you get the right dog, he feels the corrections, turns around and redirects onto YOU, a situation again which causes people to throw up their hands in disgust, proclaiming that “Corrections only made him more aggressive and now the problem is worse.”

And these situations are indeed problems in which corrections, which have their place in dog training and behavior modification, can make a dog go wrong—but the problem is, the person issuing them didn’t know how to use them in the first place to properly refocus the dog, instead using them as punishment for a particular action or set of actions.

This is not what training is about. Even the best of trainers will tell you that they have had to react to a dog, but it is VERY rare indeed. Consider too that they have the capability, tools, skill and knowledge to get that dog back in focus and under control as quickly, humanely and effectively as possible. It’s not something every dog owner is equipped to handle, even though it is something with which they are more likely to have experience.

The key to transforming owner reaction, frustration and punishment, and inconsistently-trained dogs into satisfied, calm, confident members of society (goes for both dog and human!) is to empower them. They CAN teach their dogs using positive reinforcement and humane correction, and through those techniques, they CAN have a dog that learns to not jump again. They can have the dog that they want if only for their time and effort (and payments to the trainer who teaches them these skills). They can have the dog that heels beautifully on and off leash around distractions and no longer drags them down the street. They can have the foundation of respect and trust to call that dog off mid-chase without panicking, knowing that it will promptly turn and run back toward them regardless of what it was chasing. They can have the confidence to leave food out in plain sight and know that it will be left alone. They can have the peace of mind they want, knowing that they will be able to save thousands of dollars because the dog will not chew or ingest inappropriate items when unsupervised, necessitating emergency surgery to retrieve them the hard way.

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, some well-meaning trainers believe this means withholding information that will likely save your relationship with your dog, if not your dog’s place as a pet in your home.

A good trainer will teach you how to turn a choke chain into a training collar, a shock collar into a remote training collar, or a “spiked” collar [NB: not referring to “pit bull” or LGD wolf collars here] into a pronged training collar, and change frustrated, emotional punishment into either a calm correction that helps the dog regroup and refocus. A good trainer does not always need to use food to reward the dog, but always has the option of doing so if necessary. A good trainer will teach you how to use rewards and aversives (remember, they need not always be collar corrections!) in a way that benefits the dog, rather than falsely benefiting you with tasks that feel good and sound good, but have little practical use in real-world training.

A good trainer never walks around with their “finger on the trigger,” so to speak, waiting for a dog to make a mistake so they can rain all kinds of aversives down on it.

But for many members of the general dog-owning public, they are absolutely itching to learn how to use “punishment” (to use the traditional behaviorism term) correctly. All we need to do is show them how, rather than admonish them to abandon the idea or worse, ignore their silent pleas and allow them to become frustrated enough to attempt to correct their dog in a way that is useless, counter-productive or downright abusive.

As someone more eloquent with words than I put it, “The secret to dog training is human training.”

I promised that I would reveal the non-Earth-shattering phrase uttered by the client with the problem Labrador puppy. As I was giving her information about training classes with real-world, balanced trainers (I have not yet established as a trainer at work) and explained what all she would learn with them, she sighed, looked at me and said “I would love to learn how to correct his bad behaviors.”

Provided that she continue to fulfill the dog’s needs for mental and physical stimulation, there is no reason at all this young woman should be denied this knowledge. Far from ruining her relationship with her dog, as many trainers are wont to point out, it will only further enhance it. It is my wish that she finds someone, if not myself, who will share this information with her so that her puppy can continue to grow and learn his place in this world. He’s got a lot of potential.

2 thoughts on “Empowering Dog Owners Through Balance, Part III”

  1. Pingback: Empowering Dog Owners Through Obedience, Part II

  2. Great insight in this post and this has also been my experience. Owners are so relieved when you tell them you can teach them how to effectively correct unwanted behavior, and when you assure them you don’t think they’re a bad person for wanting to say “no” to their dog!

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