|Bare Naked And Beautiful! Photo: Melanie Wooley|
Recently a competing dog training school posted pictures of their graduating class to their Facebook page. The album featured six smiling families with their dogs in a sit and a graduation certificate and individual brags beside picture. On five out of the six dogs, they were obviously wearing prong collars. Interesting. Two of the six dogs showed clear signs of distress and one dog appeared to be really frightened. All the people were wearing big smiles and the instructor made a point that he was graduating six well trained dogs. Hmmm. Why do six well trained dogs all need prong collars? And why do well trained dogs look so stressed? Could it be that the people feel that their dogs are under control by virtue of the equipment that they wear?
Jumping back twenty years or so, I remember when the leash laws first came into Guelph. There was a lot of publicity about dogs being leashed on a leash that was no more than two metres in length and being under control without a lot of information about what exactly under control meant. One fine summer day, I was out in the park in a legitimate off leash area with my dog off leash. Being a dog trainer, I was doing what I am prone to doing; I was training my dog. I left him on a sit stay, and walked about 50 metres away. A woman came along with her two kids and stopped dead and then began to scream at me to get my dog under control. Fifty metres away, my dog sat panting and looking around, and this woman continued her tirade about dangerous dogs. My leash was around my shoulders as it usually is, and my dog was relaxed and I was really confused. At first I protested that my dog WAS under control. This seemed to rev the woman up even more. After several minutes of this, I called my dog and she and the children began to shriek. My dog came and I leashed up and the woman finally relaxed a tiny amount and told me that the new law required my dog to be under control. I had an aha moment. By under control, she meant ON LEASH. Under control means something entirely different to me.
When I first started to offer dog training classes I mostly had my students using the traditional chain slip collar that we now understand can cause a lot of injuries. I don’t use them any longer and don’t allow them on my training grounds. The risk of injury to my students’ dogs is just too high, and I think that they really gave us a false sense of what it meant to be under control. When control is entirely reliant on stopping bad behaviours from happening, then we aren’t actually teaching dogs to have self control; we are teaching them that if they do things we don’t want, they will get hurt. Again, I have to reflect that as a society we have a funny way of thinking about “control”. We spent most of our time teaching the dogs what they could not do and how badly we could hurt them if they stepped out of line.
In my introduction to dog training class, I had an activity that I did with one of my own dogs. I dressed him up in every piece of dog training equipment I owned. I put on a halter and a harness, a chain collar, a flat buckle collar, a martingale, a dog coat and a prong on him. I would put him through his paces and one by one take all the equipment off. I would point out to my audience that my dog was happy to work bare naked. I did a lot of work with that dog and it was wonderful exciting happy work, even though I started him on a pain based system. What I learned with that particular dog is that it is not the equipment. It is the relationship. Control doesn’t depend upon the collar, it is reliant on the relationship.
Relationship is what really creates a dog under control. At Dogs in the Park, we start all of our dogs on flat buckle collars and two metre leashes, and we do the first few classes with the dogs tethered to the wall. We recognize that we are not starting with dogs who have self control or even owner directed control. We work towards getting the dogs off the wall as quickly as we can. We want the dogs to be successful and the people to be successful too, so we take out the variable in the equation of the dog making the wrong choice. We tether and work on SELF control.
My dog out in the park was demonstrating self control. He was controlling his impulse to go and run up and say hi to the kids. He was controlling his impulse to go to the river to swim. He was controlling his impulse to lie down. My dog was in control of himself and he was doing what I wanted him to do; he was minding his manners and staying where I had left him. This is the level of self control that is easy to live with. I didn’t have to worry about this dog pulling people over; he wouldn’t dream of pulling on leash. I didn’t have to worry about him leaving either; he knew that staying was the game at the moment. In training, that is the goal. A well trained dog is a dog who is happy and confident and who will mind his manners, even if he is bare naked.
Getting from the point of being tethered to the wall and learning to not take treats and to not knock people over when they come in to greet to being able to be left on a sit stay or a down stay at fifty metres does not need to be painful for the dog, but it is an important step in developing self control. It should in fact be fun for everyone. At home, you should be doing most of your training off leash. The leash is a great tool but it is only a tool and it is not about great training. It is what we use when we must, not what actually teaches the dog to do something. What actually teaches the dog to do things is not the equipment he wears or the words that you say, but the direct outcomes of his own behaviour.
The key to getting from point A, the dog who is out of control to point B the dog who will do distance stays while his person is being screamed at is a process of steps. Seeing the pictures of the graduating class of the other school reminded me of how important steps and stages are. At the very beginning, I have to acknowledge that the dog does not understand what I want. If pain is the tool we choose to explain this to the dog, then we need to be able to set the dog up to learn quickly and efficiently that there is a way to avoid pain. The pain should be minimal and rare and the dog should understand how to not get hurt. In the old days when I was first learning to train we would do set ups where we would set the dog up to fail so that he could learn that he would be hurt if he made the wrong choice. I realize now, especially when I look at pictures and video from those days that my dog was often concerned about being right and worried that she would get hurt. The picture of the graduation class brought home some pretty strong memories for me, some of which I am not entirely proud of.
Now when I look at the journey from point A to point B, I ask myself if the dog is relaxed and happy. If the dog is relaxed, then I know that he understands what I want him to do. I look not only at if the dog can do the skill, but also if the dog is comfortable about it. If the dog is not comfortable I reassess what I am asking him to do. When we start a dog in training at Dogs in the Park, they start on the wall and we ask the question; “are you comfortable enough to take treats?” If the answer is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to click and treat?” If the answer to that is yes, then we ask “are you comfortable enough to refrain from taking treats when you should not?” and if the answer is yes, we ask the question “are you comfortable enough to offer behaviours?” If we get a no, then we work with the client to determine what we need to do to make the dog feel safe and comfortable enough to work in our classroom. We ask the dog.
Training is not just about skills acquisition. It is also about the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship that the dog has with you. When a dog feels confident about you and the work you are doing, he is eager and keen to try new things. He doesn’t look worried or concerned. He doesn’t look like something might go wrong at any moment. When a dog feels confident about what he is doing he is willing to engage in things with you, and that is what partnership is about. It is not just about skills acquisition at all; it is about everything that the dog is thinking about and experiencing including how the dog is working with you.
So I come full circle back to the graduation pictures that my competitor posted. The people look thrilled and proud. Half the dogs look relaxed. The instructor describes his clients and their dogs as well trained dogs and people. But three of the six dogs look unhappy and at least five of the six dogs are wearing devices that operate on pain. None of the dogs is looking at his person as though that person was interesting or cool. This is where we started at Dogs in the Park. I am really glad we moved on to where we are now. The pictures I post of my clients don’t show a whole lot of graduations. We don’t graduate dogs anymore. We celebrate when they achieve levels. And we see a lot more happy and a lot fewer stressed dogs. I am really proud of what we are doing here, and I hope my students are just as proud of themselves; our dogs learn skills and they also learn about partnership and relationship and trust. And when you dog trusts that you have his back, he will do nearly anything for you. One step at a time, towards a goal that is meaningful for both of you. I am so glad my competition posted their pictures. Sometimes I just need some confirmation that I am heading in the right direction.