I’ve found the dogs I’ve lived with and worked with to be some of my best teachers.
The biggest and most important lesson they’ve shared with me, is just how the devil is in the detail 🙂
You see dogs notice EVERYTHING and they respond accordingly. Sometimes with maddening results. But they’re not being difficult, they’ve just noticed things that we missed.
For example, last week I had a home visit booked with a cute little terrier fella, who’s owner was struggling with getting him to come back when there were other dogs about.
She was thrilled that he enjoyed playing with other dogs and wanted him to be a sociable little chap, but not coming back when called was ruining her enjoyment of walking him.
My argument is always, why would we want our dogs to learn how much fun it can be to play with other dogs? Or at least it’s a lesson that can wait until they understand that being with us is the best thing since sliced bread 🙂
She’s not the first owner who has been keen to show me how bad the problem was by wanting to get out there and have him demonstrate.
But the truth is, when you recognise how dogs think you can diagnose the problem far earlier than when the dog is let off the lead in front of you.
Whilst I was asking my usual questions, the young man in the spotlight was busy trying to burrow his way into my pocket to find what the intriguing treat smell was. That was my first clue as to his wayward behaviour on walks 😉
I then asked to see the treats that the owner had been using when she’d had training failures, guessing correctly that they would be small and rather dry biscuits. Clue number two!
Then when we went through some basic Sits & Downs, I found that he didn’t respond immediately to verbal cues and needed physical prompts as well. And predictably, though understandably for someone who hasn’t trained with me before, his owner wasn’t terribly generous with her rewards. Clue number three!
My terrier friend (who had quickly become such through my enthusiastic and generous reward schedule) was simply not finding enough reinforcement through working with his mum, and finding playing with other dogs a far more interesting and enjoyable proposition.
This never gets fixed ‘in the field’ so to speak – it starts before we even leave the house.
What that looks like is this – I expect my dogs to respond promptly to my verbal cues inside our home, and reward them with things that I know from observing them, that are valuable and important to each individual. This might be food, toys or activities depending on the situation.
Oh and you only get paid if it’s a good one – mum only dishes out goodies to dogs that earn them!
Knowing what this baseline for response to verbal cues is, is important because it gives me a guide to how quickly I should expect them to be able to respond elsewhere.
Plus I make sure that before I put them in situations that I know they’ll find difficult to concentrate in, that I’ve worked up to that point by gradually increasing the level of complexity.
I notice by their responses what they find easy or difficult and I increase the challenge when I see their level of success at a task grow. And perhaps most importantly, I celebrate with genuine and joyful enthusiasm whenever they manage something that I know they previously found hard.