“Do you enjoy training with your dog?”

That’s my official first statement of every training session, private or group. It alone sets the tempo, the mood, and the foundation of my training philosophy. It transcends, magnifies, and enhances any and all types of training method. Your dog is your “mirror”, (To borrow a profound phrase) and if you don’t enjoy it, neither will the dog. It’s as plain and simple as that. I don’t care if you are teaching a Schit-zu to “dance”, a Border Collie to run an agility course, or a German Shepherd to earn a Schutzhund title. If you can’t muster up enthusiasm, joy, and make yourself burst with fun, you will fail and your dog’s potential will be horribly diminished.
Be warned, I will sometimes slip into Drill Sergeant mode with this question. If students don’t react with an enthusiastic answer to the positive, I’ll keep asking until I get the loud firm answer I want to hear. Your enthusiasm, or lack thereof, will always and forever affect the way your dog performs, and from the very start, I intend for you to put away any shyness, self-imposed “dignity”, or fear of looking silly. Many first timers to one of my latest seminars start out reserved, nervous. But by the time 30 minutes have gone by, there are no more reservations. You figure out quickly that we are here to “feed” your dog, open up the tap on his energy flow to full force, and have fun!
This chapter was hatched as I watched three separate examples of students that simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give their four-legged partner praise for a job well done. One was on a cable network show called “Alpha K9”. A student handler was repeatedly cajoled by the instructors to praise his dog, and he simply refused to drop his tough-guy persona, and “feed” his dogs energy level. Finally, the student made a mocking, sarcastic, attempt to comply which fell flat. The student gave up and quit the program, his reasons unspoken. Maybe he had personal issues at home, maybe he just wanted the dog to be another firearm. I don’t know. But the dog would never be a success without his handlers help, and that well had run dry some time ago. Or was never filled.
The other example was a private student, with me for scent-work. The dog knew it’s job and did it well. But the middle-aged lady handling him simply could not see the benefit of an “over-the-top” celebration when the dog performed well. After every sweep, it was simple to see the dog look to her for the payoff in this game, and there was none. It had all the celebratory feel of a prostate exam. After four sweeps, the dog lay down and simply didn’t want to play anymore while she held the leash. “See? She just gives up too quickly and won’t play anymore! What is her problem??” she lamented to me.
I always try to react to such questions gently and professionally. Sometimes I fail. “Why do you pay me to get together with you and Shiloh?” was my less than cordial inquest.
“So she’ll learn to do scent-work, so we can compete…but she won’t work!”
My first reaction was to internally begin singing, ‘Swing loowww, Sweeeeet Chaaarreeee-ottt, a’comin’ for to carry me ho-wwmme!’ ( I tend toward old spirituals when I’m fighting to not slap someone upside their head. Keeps me out of jail.)

“Okay, let’s make things plain and simple.” A very good start for me, considering.
” Shiloh is a great dog that already knows everything there is too know about scent-work. She learned it as a puppy…What she’s missing is “incentive” to sniff out a Birch scented piece of cotton in a drawer. There’s no fun here…May I show you what I mean?”
“If she’ll stand up and work, be my guest. Good Luck!” She answered.
I grabbed my leather tug toy from nearby and teased the German Shepherd into grabbing it firmly, beginning a tugging game that I knew would spark a reaction of enthusiasm. I whooped and laughed with her, making myself the center of her universe. I must have appeared silly to the lady, with my “Good Girl! Get the toy, Get the toy! Good girl!!!” It was Canine-Mardis-gras as far as we were concerned, without the beads. I allowed her to successfully take the toy from me when she pulled hardest, followed by the traditional German Shepherd circle parade with the absconded toy. As quickly as she returned to me, I attached her leash, and walked her to the small “scent-arena” that we use. “Search!” I commanded.
Shiloh’s eyes blazed and she nearly yanked the leash from my hand. She worked a bit more frantically than I prefer, but I was making a point to a non-believer here. When the dog found the birch scent, hidden in a top drawer, she hit the floor immediately in a tight indication. I first made sure that she was “obedient” to the scent by pulling the leash, trying to take her out of the scent, (Yeah, I need to explain this at some point) When I was satisfied, I whooped for joy and yelled “Good Girl Shiloh! Good Girl!” Then I produced the tug-toy and celebrated a bit more with the eager dog. The lady actually laughed at our display at first, but when I repeated the game 5 more times in rapid succession, my point was made. “Why did she work for you? I don’t get it…” The poor woman looked past the obvious.
“She didn’t work for me, technically speaking”, I began to open the door of understanding for her, “…she worked because of the energy between us, because of the enthusiasm pulling her in, and because it’s just plain fun! Shiloh was bouncing on her front feet at my front position by now.
“Understand what I’m saying, “Praising your dog is the foundation of your communication with your dog, and communication is the foundation of successful dog training!”

After that session, the lady began to loosen up, and she began to see the results of simple praise and personal enthusiasm. Further on, I had her visit a local Agility trainer of my acquaintance, for an observational lesson. Just pure observation. Watch and Learn. I did this because I believe that Agility trainers and Handlers are head and shoulders above many other trainers, based solely on the unbridled enthusiasm and energy that they put into training with their dog. Schutzhund trainers tend toward the “tough-guy” mode, but they run a close second to the agility people when they ignore their natural tendency. This type of crazy trainer is highly successful. They are unfettered by feeling self-conscious of their actions in the training ring, and the energy level is palpable during both practices and competition. I’ve learned to watch these trainers and they are teaching a truly effective mode of operation. Praise, Party, and Praise some more. Followed by a brief period of Praise. Food treats aren’t even necessary, as the dog soaks in the energy of praise, and it shoots thru him like Ice Cream thru a lactose intolerant 5-year-old.
Practice your praise. You’ll find that your training becomes more fun, more productive, and you’ll both look forward to it!
Make it a point to find things that your dog loves to play with. A leather tug toy, a squeaky ball, a dish towel, an old plastic coffee can. (My Hans will climb the highest mountain for a blue Hills Brothers plastic coffee can. I have no idea why.) At first, when your dog performs well, give the toy immediately and celebrate. Keep the game going, and gradually increase the interval between success and reward until your dog only expects reward when the game is finished.
You are also the source of your dogs enthusiasm and emotion. Let them see you enjoying the game with them! Be loud, laugh, carry on, smile for the love of Pete! Your dog is supposed to be fun! Isn’t that why you wanted him in the first place?
I mentioned in a previous chapter that the emotionally intelligent dog will often try to manipulate your emotion to something more positive. I’ve proofed this conclusion for myself when it comes to praise and reward with the dog. When going to the training field for a game of retrieve, I naturally give my best enthusiastic performance for the dog. As a test, I will sometimes withhold my playful noise, and remain quiet. Every time, Hans will approach me with the retrieved item and look at me strangely. “What’sa matter Dad? No reward? No fun?”
He wants me to have fun, to share his joy. He also wants the game to go on, and if I’m not enjoying it, it might stop. So he asks for my emotional communication in the game. I can see no other reason for the reaction. If I persist in my underwhelming reactions, he will keep whatever toy that he’s retrieved, and run around me, goading my reaction to something more to his liking. He’s reasoned this out in his emotional mind, and he’s usually spot-on correct.
Take the time to practice living like your dog, searching for fun, having a positive attitude, and finding enjoyment. Time with your dog should be enjoyable, even when your intent is training for serious activity. That attitude will shape and develop your skills at giving praise.

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Open Up…to being “dog”.

Posted: October 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

I am an admirer of the contemporary essayist and writer, Edward Hoaglund. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him, but that’s why I’m writing this post. Mr. Hoaglund was born in New York, New York in 1932. During his early twenties, he took a job at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus tending to the large cats that took part in the circus acts. Pretty exciting stuff for a young man looking to find a voice in the world. That’s a side note regarding my admiration for him, as young Edward had a speech impediment, a severe stammer. He is quoted as saying, regarding this problem, “Words are spoken at considerable cost to me, so a great value is placed on each one. That has had some effect on me as a writer. As a child, since I couldn’t talk to people, I became close to animals. I became an observer, and in all my books, even the novels, witnessing things is what counts.”

You see, he and I share a speech impediment. His, a stammer making speech unintelligible at times. My own is a strangulated vocal chord sometimes making my voice too weak to be heard, or hard consonants impossible to form. So we’ve both bonded with the written word, in order to bring to life what we observe, feel, and need to express. We also share a great love of canis familiaris, and we sate our love for them by writing about them. I was ruminating over the first heading of this chapter, “The Bond” we all seek to form with our dogs, and it occurred to me that Edward had written something quite profound. I frantically tried to remember where I had read it, but couldn’t find it for all my searching. Well, I finally found it in my journal, where I recorded it, and it will be central to the rest of this heading. Here’s the quote:

“In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The Point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” – E. Hoaglund.

Pretty profound if you’re asking my opinion. And yet, it’s often ignored, or even denied, in the world of dog training today. An examination of specific modals of contemporary “training” show a heavy and misguided reliance on pure “Science”, which ignores that dogs are bound, or even freed, by the emotional capacity that they have. Science and Behavioral Theory ignore the true source of the bond that human and dog can achieve together, namely a relationship that produces positive action between the two living souls. Heavy reliance on clickers and food treats(and the crazy idea of ever increasingly, “high value” treats) to achieve obedience, or tricks, or whatever actually blocks the ideal flow of emotion thru the dog, by interruption. Therefore such methods are more like bandages on sucking chest wounds, unable to stop bleeding because of inadequacy. Training our dogs should more properly focus on the personal trust and bond that we build with our dog from day one together.
The $100,000,000,000.00 question is this: How do I develop my own “dogness”, a state of empathy (as opposed to sympathy) with my dog? And can we achieve that state? Truth be told, I don’t know. But I’m trying anyway.
I’ve noticed a recent proliferation on the internet of sites that focus on “observation” of canine behavior. And I applaud the thinking behind this supposition. The Body language and physical reactions that reveal what’s going on between those fuzzy ears. Facebook has a page that shows photo’s of dogs and page members post their interpretation of different “signals”. I believe that careful observation is an important part of developing “dogness”, but from reading the various posts, it seems to me that “Human Psychological” science is encroaching on the discussion to a crippling degree. Some of the observations turn the dogs into furry humans with human reactions to various situations. It becomes so complicated, burdened with way too much minutiae, that the salient points are shrouded in “What does that mean?” But I do believe that some of it is on track. Most especially those observations that are simple. Those that allow dogs to be dogs. Those that understand that dogs are really very simple, uncomplicated, creatures. It is only human science that turns the mind of a dog into a convoluted labyrinth of difficult to understand behaviors. Becoming aware of your own “dogness” may well be a result of your own willingness to be simple and straightforward in your own thinking. Again, this is a major obstacle to most people who call themselves “Trainers”, or “Behaviorists”. Many of them want canine behavior to be complicated, understood only by people with degrees and formal education. Many want to put dog training into the stratosphere of professions so that those who have only experience are cast aside as “wannabees”. But I’m telling you, dogs are much happier as simple, thinking souls. That’s not to say that dogs are stupid, or mindless. They do have intelligence, that much is rock-solid. But when we understand their inherent simplicity, we can approach what Hoaglund was speaking about… becoming partially “dog”.
The first thing that I’ve attempted in gaining this bond, is to simplify my own approach to training. I took every book on training and understanding dogs that I own, the notes from every seminar I’ve attended, and tried to distill them into one, simple truth. I began with the concept of “Drives”. There are behaviorists and trainers that will assign a different “drive” to every behavior. At first, my own thinking followed current understanding. That they all can be refined into a single motivator, a single “drive”. It’s called “Prey Drive”. The drive to hunt, search, eat, and play for one essential reason. Your dog is a “hunter”. Operating off this conclusion has allowed me to ask simpler questions of why my dog does what he does. “Why would a born-hunter react in this way?” “What would a simple hunter do in this situation?” That was my approach…Not everybody subscribes to what I do, and that’s fine. Now, as you’ve already read, my thinking on the matter of “drives” is evolving. Your own experience may lead you in an entirely different direction, and that’s fine. You find your way. But here are a couple of suggested questions to dwell on. They may help you to consider the subject.
Ask yourself this: How can I see the world in the same way as my dog? How do I suspend the human tendency to judge and analyze everything that comes before me, and react like a dog would? How does my dog communicate with me? Am I trying to see things from his viewpoint, or am I forcing him/her into some wayward, human paradigm like operant conditioning or pure pack behavior? Have I ever tried to duplicate my dog’s way of communicating? For instance, have I ever tried to duplicate a “play-bow” to my dog? What was the reaction? Try not speaking to your dog, and communicate thru body language. Or facial expression. Closely observe how your dog reacts to your mood. If I get frustrated or even angry about something, what does my dog do? Hide? Growl at me? Suspend your adulthood for a few minutes, and pretend to be a dog! Sniff at things, roll over on your back, whatever a dog does during it’s time. (I’d not recommend that you go around humping things like some dogs are wont to do, as this could lead to legal and ethical, not to mention social complications) Find a way to Be Dog. It will open up a whole new understanding of your canine friend!
(P.S.- I’d also not recommend allowing someone to lead you around on a leather collar and leash in public. More complications that you don’t want. I’m just sayin’…)

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