Updated: Feb 16, 2020
Dog training methods have changed tremendously over the years as we learn more about what goes on in our dogs’ brain and how they learn. Developments in technology have given us an insight into emotions and behaviour in our dogs and what parts of the brain and nervous system are involved.
We like to use this information and knowledge to help develop methods of training that are kind to the dog as well as being effective.
Dogs are learning 24/7: they never stop learning, so the more we can influence WHAT they are learning the better chance we have of developing a dog that will be a pleasure to be around rather than one who develops behaviours that might be problematic.
Most modern dog training methods are based on using positive reinforcement to increase the behaviours that we want. In other words, we reward the behaviours that we want our dogs to do. Positive reinforcement is an effective means of learning that has an advantage – it also produces a positive relationship with our dog and is unlikely to produce stress in the dog (or us!).
Increased stress when trying to learn anything new has detrimental effects on the learning, both in our dogs and us. Chronic stress affects how we produce memories and our ability to think clearly and retain information.
We want to give our dogs the best chance of learning how to be around people and other dogs. The focus of our training is on teaching our dogs how to think in order to make good choices ‘out in the world’. We teach different CONCEPTS, which when understood, allow the dog to learn to make better choices e.g. to turn towards you and focus on you rather than chasing the squirrel that’s just jumped down off the tree. Of course, this takes time and gradual layering of understanding for the dog, but it’s perfectly achievable.
One of the main concepts we work on is CALMNESS. A calm dog is less stressed and much more likely to make good decisions. Rest is something that’s often overlooked in dogs, in fact most advice is about giving your dog more to do to stimulate them to keep them from being bored. This approach often leads to many of the problem behaviours seen in dogs. Of course, dogs need exercise, but they also need adequate rest and calmness to help them de-stress. In our training we play short games that are both physically and mentally stimulating, gradually increasing the complexity as our dog learns the concepts.
In the beginning with a puppy, or with an older dog that has perhaps developed some behaviours that we’d rather not have, we help the dog with the decision-making process by managing his surroundings. We limit the choices that he has in order that he less chances of making the wrong or inappropriate decision. So if we’re working on recall, say our dog doesn’t come back when he’s off-leash, then we re not going to take him to the park, let him off the lead, and expect him to make the right decision of coming when called, when there are numerous decisions that he could make instead of coming to you. He could run off with another dog, he could go to greet people, he could decide to sniff the grass, he could jump in the pond, he could chase a deer…….! This scenario is a recipe for disaster and failure, causing frustration or despair in you and stress and confusion in your dog.
What we would do is work on the concepts of FOCUS on you, and PROXIMITY to you. We would also start teaching the concepts in a low distraction environment. In other words, we wouldn’t start in the park! We’d start off in a room in the house, playing games that develop these concepts until the dog has the idea, then we might move it to another room, then out in the garden, maybe then a quiet car park, and when the dog gets the idea in all of these contexts we can take it ‘on the road’. We don’t put the dog into the most difficult situation and expect him to make the right choice. That would be like putting a 3-year-old in a sweet factory with no restrictions and expecting them to make good choices – it’s just not going to happen! So, we train FOR the situation, not IN the situation.
The way we approach training is to use the fact that dogs are learning 24/7 and turn this to our advantage.
This means that you don’t have to set aside long periods especially for training. We play the games for short periods of time at different times – I’ll often work on playing games of self-control with my dog while I’m cooking, I expect her to stay quietly on a boundary/bed, and I reward her for doing that by throwing treats to her when she is lying quietly. This reinforces the behaviour that I want. That's our 'training session'. So, I’m using the opportunity to work with my dog whenever I get a chance. This has the advantage of developing the relationship with my dog by having odd times during the day or evening and using them to my advantage. You can do the same!
When starting the training as we said, we need to manage the choices that our dogs’ have. This means that when not training or out on a walk, we are going to manage the dog’s environment. Remember we said that dogs need adequate rest, so, when not engaging your dog either in play, training or going out for a walk, then he should have the opportunity to rest in a quiet room on his own, or in a crate or pen. This is an ideal time to give a stuffed Kong or a lick-mat, to occupy the dog in an activity that relaxes them. Most people allow their dogs unlimited access to all of the house all the time, or if it’s a multi-dog household the dogs are always together (and usually always interacting) and are never given the opportunity to have quiet time alone. Think about the 3-year-old in the sweet factory who has unlimited access all the time, well your dog is not going to make good choices when this is the case for him.
The other thing that makes us different is that our trainer has over 20 years experience in working with stress and anxiety in 'us humans'. This means that we are able to offer solutions for 'both sides of the equation'.
With a little bit of thought and some minor changes you will be able to give your dog the best chance of learning how to make good choices whatever the situation and to have a dog that is ‘Ready For Life’.