“My dog down-stresses.”
“My dog shuts down.”
“My dog can’t tolerate frustration.”
“My dog hates to be wrong.”
“My dog knows when I don’t have treats.”
“My dog is low-drive.”
And the list goes on.
We’ve heard these things. We’ve said these things. What if it’s not the dogs, but us? What if each time we try to describe our dog’s behavior (or lack thereof) to a trainer or friend we are zeroing in on the wrong end of the leash? And further, if the responsibility rests squarely on the human half, how are we to address the very real problems people are facing with their dogs when they make the above statements? Three words: clarity, confidence, and consent.
Dissecting what it truly means to be a clear trainer and handler is a vital process to solving any and all behavioral concerns in our dogs. Clear communication is the key that unlocks the box labeled “solutions.” Training with clean mechanics and a sharply defined vernacular, handling with consistent body language, and lighting the way to reinforcement for your dog will always spell success. If your dog gets stressed or shuts down in training examine your training language; are your marker signals steady and information-packed? When dogs struggle in competition but less so in class, this often has to do with readily-available reinforcers (that cookie in your hand) outweighing the confusion they occasionally feel when you make handling mistakes (as we all do).
It is our job to inspire confidence in our dogs. Can we help ourselves by picking confident puppies? Sure, but what if you have a dog that lacks self-confidence? A dog that quits in the face of problems, cowers under the pressure of a trial, or checks out at the first glimmer of frustration? Rather than slap them with labels like “frustration intolerant” or “low-drive” we should examine our training practices. We can show dogs that they can do hard things by providing them with puzzles they can easily solve. We can recognize that what we are asking is actually a lot, and we can be careful not to ask too much. If we see a dog’s confidence wavering we can recognize that as a big problem; bigger than a missed contact or weave entry, bigger than a slow teeter or knocked bars.
Finally, we can always get permission. Have you bothered to ask your dog what he’d like to do lately? Does he push his way out of the crate when you’ve arrived at agility class, or must you coax him? When you train your other dog, is he content to remain benched? Asking our dogs if they would like to participate in the numerous things we have on our agendas is a novel idea, and one we can all explore. Whether it involves the subtle ways they can tell us they are opting in or a thoroughly trained language of consent, we should be asking. And we should be accepting their answers; always.
So if you’ve said any of the above phrases, perhaps it’s time to look down that leash and say, “I guess it’s not you, it’s me.” Then come and join me in learning more about how we can get clear, inspire confidence, and ask for consent in my upcoming course.