!?!?!?! I hear you say. What on earth is a Training Dance?’ Well, it’s not really a dance – but then again, it is. Confused? Read on…
It’s a truism that training isn’t something we do TO our dogs, it’s something we do WITH our dogs. In that way, it is like a dance. It’s a relationship, a partnership, an exchange of information. Just like a great relationship with your best friend, or successfully parenting your child, you’re both engaged and involved, listening to each other and making subtle adjustments as necessary from the signals you get from one another. At least, that’s how it is in an ideal world when both of you know the steps and are willing participants.
Who’s Out Of Step?
The question is, if your ‘dance’ doesn’t look or feel like that, do you know why? I’ll let you into a secret, the dog is NEVER the one letting down the team. Dogs always do ‘what works for dogs’. They totally know the steps of every dance they do!
Your dog is honest to a fault – if a behaviour gets him what he wants, or avoids something he doesn’t, he’ll keep on doing it. So, if dancing with you works for him, he’ll keep on doing it. If another option works better, he’ll do that instead. There is no malice in this – no hidden agenda or manipulation. Dogs just do what works for dogs.
So, if the dance you want to do makes sense and is worth your dog’s time and energy, you will have a willing, honest partner. If your dance doesn’t make sense – the steps and moves unclear, confusing, difficult, or unpleasant, you’ll be dancing on your own. (Unless you coerce your dog; and really, where’s the fun of dancing with a partner that would rather be anywhere else but with you?)
Do You Want to Learn to Dance?
Not everyone wants to dance the Training Dance with their dog. Some just want to force their dog through the moves and call it done. This is not dancing. Nor is it fun for your dog. It works for some but it is not dancing.
Some don’t want to dance at all – they’re quite content to let their dog do its own thing. That’s fine if your dog’s behaviour doesn’t impact on anyone else or risk their own wellbeing. I’m jealous that you live in a situation where that sort of freedom of expression is possible!
If you fall into one of these categories, I wish you well and suggest you stop reading this and go do something more useful with your time: the rest of this article will be of no interest to you.
However, remember, if you have a dog, you are, like it or not, a dog ‘trainer’. The majority of people who own dogs need to educate them in some way or other. Perhaps you just want a ‘well behaved house pet’? Or you take your dog out and about a lot as your trusty companion or support dog? Maybe dog sports are your thing? So, if you have a dog and need/want to train it AND don’t fall in the ‘make ‘em do it or else’ category, you have little choice but to learn to dance with your canine partner.
Almost everyone who comes through my door looking for help is there because they don’t know the steps to the ‘Training Dance’. They may have been able to ‘fake it’ and get some results. They may have been lucky enough to have had a dog who has carried them and made them think they knew the Training Dance in the past – but the new dance partner isn’t quite as accommodating. Whatever the reason they are on my doorstep, the Training Dance is almost always where we begin.
OK, Enough of the Dance Metaphor!
The point I’m making is that training is a two-way process and you BOTH need to know what you’re doing. If you get your bit right, your dog will respond appropriately and learn what you are trying to teach them.
To teach your dog anything you need to realise that there is an underlying process to follow. That process is the same no matter WHAT you are trying to teach your dog. Whether it’s a recall in the park, sit when you ask or a competition retrieve, the underlying process is the same! The basic principles are the same! If you know how the training process goes, you can teach your dog whatever you want him to know (that is physically possible for your dog) and he will happily follow.
Now that’s not to say that you can teach a whippet to be a prize-winning herding dog or a basset to be an Agility Grand Champion. There are limits set by genetics and body shape, after all. But, all things being equal, you can teach most dogs to do a fair approximation of most things. (Recently I saw a video of an Australian Shepherd playing Jenga – I rest my case!)
And the Process is…?
I’ll be honest, I don’t have the time or the room to take you through the whole process in great detail here. You won’t just go skipping off into the sunset from this article, content in the knowledge that you are now totally fluent in the art of teaching dogs. However, I will give you an overview of the steps to get you started:
1 Understand How Dogs Learn.
If you understand what makes dogs do what they do, what makes your dog behave in specific ways and respond with particular emotions, you have just saved yourself a whole heap of trouble and stress. Much of the angst us dog owners experience is because we attribute human motivations to canine behaviours.
There is nothing wrong with saying your dog looks sad, happy, content or frightened. Empathy is great and a big part of training. You need to be able to read your dog’s emotions to be able to respond to them appropriately. However, thinking that your dog crapped on the carpet to get back at you for leaving, or destroyed the couch because they want to be the pack leader, is just plain not useful.
Understanding how dogs learn, and why they may be doing what they’re doing, is super helpful for removing the emotional knee jerk reaction we all have when things go pear shaped.
Of course, if you understand how dogs learn you’re also in a much better position to teach them stuff too. Much easier to use your new fancy phone once you know how it works, right?
2 What Do you Want to Teach?
Sometimes this bit is easy, sometimes not so much. At this step we decide what we actually want our dog to DO. We examine and dissect. We plan and strategise. Obviously if you’re just teaching a basic “sit when I ask you, in the kitchen while I have your food bowl in my hand”, that plan is going to be very different to the one needed for “sit straight, with back feet parallel, front paws 3 inches from my toes, looking up at my face for a duration of 10 seconds, while a stranger wanders around behind you and I look like a frozen mannequin.” – a competition front present.
This is the stage where we build a road map of how to get from nothing to something; where we are now to where we want to be.
3 How Big, Strong or Robust Does it Need to Be?
Now we have our road map, we need to conceive, grow, nurture and strengthen our infant behaviour.
Most of us want some sort of reliability. It’s nice if your dog can respond the same way out and about, with distractions, as they do in the privacy of your kitchen, with food on the bench. This is the step I see go wrong most often. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are reliable, resilient behaviours!
Just like building muscles, if you over-strain or ask too much of weak behaviours, they will fail. You’ll have to go back and repair and re-strengthen them. If you strain/break a behaviour too often, it becomes permanently weak – just like a repeatedly sprained ankle.
If you want to get fit, you have a plan, a strategy, to avoid injury but still maintain progress. Building and strengthening behaviours is exactly the same. You need to avoid placing excess strain (by using management as a support) but push enough that your dog builds confidence in their ability to ‘do the thing’ under the conditions you’d like them to be able to do it.
This process has two parts: in the initial training AND once we take it on the road, after we’ve christened our baby behaviour.
4 What to Call ‘The Thing’?
Once we’ve got to the point where we have a strong enough behaviour that we can start to ‘test’ it a bit, we need a way to ask the dog to do it. This is your dog’s cue – an invitation to perform the behaviour and receive a goodie. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this and it all comes down to the foundations of HOW animals learn (not just dogs).
Cues need to predict events. They need to give information. They are not ‘commands’ – ‘do it or else’ dictates. A huge amount of the power of positive reinforcement training relies on this one fact! Cues act as reinforcers. Commands do not. This is especially important to understand if you plan on teaching any complex chains of behaviour such as for sports or service type tasks. That little fact can also shoot you in the foot if you forget it with your pet dog too 🙂
5 Taking it on the Road and Maintenance
Just like our fitness, we continue to build strength of response under environmental ‘pressure’ and then maintain that strength. This phase never ends. If you stop, the behaviour is likely to weaken and finally fade away.
Most people don’t want to constantly smell like a deli so I suggest swapping food rewards for play and access to life rewards. This step is totally individual to your dog. What do they love? What do they hate? What gets them out of bed in the morning? It can take a bit of skill to convince your dog that other rewards are perfectly acceptable instead of roast beef – but it’s worth doing if you want reliability (and clean pockets!).
And there you have it. The steps to the Training Dance. Apologies for not giving you the nitty gritty details of the process. I don’t have time to write a book – and you may not have time to read one right now! However, if you DO want to know the nitty gritty – and turn your training into a smooth Dance between you and your dog, I just happen to have something cooking that you may like…
My online course. walks you through all the steps I’ve touched on here – in a great deal more detail, complete with practical exercises so you can see real results.
Happy Training (or should that be Dancing?)
– Sarah and the Gang
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