After a somewhat prolonged hiatus from writing here, I am finally back and rarin’ to go. With my Fathers death and memorial service behind me, I am now ready to think about other things. Thank you to everyone that sent notes and e-mails of condolence. Of Dad, I will offer you only this: It is beyond wonderful and inspiring to know and see that your Dad was loved and admired by so many people, for so many years.
Some of you dear readers have mentioned that you prefer me to write posts that reveal my thoughts and methods on dog-training rather than describing my experiences currently taking place with Kevin Behans Natural Dog Training (NDT). Some even noted that I sound like a religious convert, ready to abandon my own thinking in whole. Well, no apology here. NDT works, and it reflects so much of my own thinking and efforts. However, rather than attempt to explain what Kevin has developed, I will strive to explain my own viewpoint of what NDT is accomplishing with my dogs. If I occasionally stray from how some members of the tight-knit and very welcoming NDT community would explain NDT, I offer this: Understand that I see NDT from a different vantage point, for now anyway. I am neither philosopher nor scientist, just a Canine handler looking to share my experience. I’ll continue to grow, but I must be what I am…Watch me grow.
As I’ve developed my own approach to dog-training, begun to absorb NDT methods and reviewed my own experiences in depth, my thinking has evolved along several unexpected paths. The poets would label this serendipity, and so shall I. This journey has turned up some unexpected and wonderful experiences. After all, if we do not learn, change and grow from our efforts, we will certainly stunt our own development as trainers and human beings. One such road involves something that is recommended in the raising of dogs and human children. The word itself seems to shout success to every dog person I know…
Or “Be Consistent” or “Develop a Consistent…” whatever. I want to challenge certain elements of that philosophy now. Not the elements such as Potty-training, tooth-brushing, (What do you mean you don’t brush your dogs teeth??? Prepare to be lectured soon!!!) ear-cleaning or social skills. Teaching these things consistently will help ingrain them into your dog brain.
I’m talking about your training in Obedience, Scent work, Schutzhund, Agility, Rally-O, or other activities of the sort. Consistency can become boring, and in turn prevent your dog from using the energy that needs to be worked off. Stick with me here…This partially coalesced for me with a fellow trainer (we’ll call him Bruce, because thats his name) that complained one day that his dog knew everything they were going to do before he had opportunity to communicate with him. The dog was becoming listless and distracted in his work, and his playtime. The dog showed no real motivation when put on a trail, he’d drop off your arm during bitework and walk away. First, he had Bongo checked over by his Vet to reassure himself that the dog was healthy. One Hundred over One Hundred…Bongo was perfectly healthy. This called for thinking the problem thru, so we hied ourselves off to the man-cave, with two glasses of distilled conversation starter and the two dogs.
Before a serious analysis could begin, we made ourselves comfortable. Shortly thereafter, Bruce produced a clip-board with a printed, dog-eared, daily schedule attached. “What’s that Bruce?’ I inquired, snagging a piece of pickled baloney for myself from the canister in the refrigerator.
“Bongo’s training schedule. We follow it everyday. Consistency is everything in training a dog. We follow this religiously. Bongo practically goes from exercise to exercise without direction from me. If I skip something, or go too long, he gets all giddy and I lose his attention…How can you eat that stuff?!” Bruce explained while snorting at my Up North delicacy.
“Let’s practice together tomorrow, and maybe we can figure something out that will help him.” I offered. “And don’t insult my pickled baloney ever again. You can be hog-tied to the hood of a truck for saying that in Michigan.”
The next morning, we practiced together. Watching Bruce and Bongo together, many would say, “Wow…What a Team. They react to each other so precisely, like they read each others mind…” Even their play session was predictable and the energy level never changed. There was no ebb and flow, high or low. It was choreographed and performed by rote.
I would have never noticed this before beginning to understand the tenets of Natural Dog Training. One of those tenets is Emotion. Bongo was devoid of Emotion while they worked. So was Bruce. In simple terms, they were bored out of their minds!! At this point, I had the thought that they were being consistent in their training, just as they had been trained. Bongo and Bruce were acting like graduates of the Karen Pryor Click for Tricks School…Bongo had been “shaped” into a bored dog, and Bruce wasn’t far behind him. It was all “Perform, Treat,,, Perform Treat, ad infinitum.” The “Consistency” was hurting both of them…
It took me a few minutes to consider how to help them, but it finally hit me. “Hey Bruce! Bring Bongo over here! I want to try something…”
Normally, we don’t trade off dogs for practice sessions, (though I think we will begin this practice shortly) but I was having an active epiphany. I grabbed a 24-inch leather tug-toy from my bag, a toy that Bongo had never seen before. (In fact Bruce had been using the same Kong toy exclusively, as well as his barrel sleeve, the whole day.) “Let’s try something off-the-grid…Lets see if the wild-child is still living inside of your dog…”
Bruce released Bongo from his leash and the dog looked confused. “Now what do I do???” Bongo looked at Bruce.
I rushed the big Malinois with the leather toy provocatively, and he immediately engaged with all of those glimmering white teeth flashing. We began a rough and tumble game of” tug and push” (for more explanation of this important technique, see the NDT websites and written materials) which I repeatedly allowed the dog to win. He transformed into a different dog nearly instantly. Here was “Emotion” pouring out of this recently listless animal like a volcano. I ended up working Bongo for an hour, doing things he had done a thousand times before. Except this time, I was changing up, no, IGNORING consistency. My advice to Bruce was simple and direct. “Throw away the clipboard and schedule, and have some fun with your dog. Consistency is poison to the dogs mojo!”
I took this thought process away with me and began to observe other trainers and how they work. Most had “Consistencies” that they never changed. Always reward with a treat, always reward with a toy, always use the same toy, do obedience drills in the same order, feed the dog at the same time everyday, and on and on…Most felt that this “Structure” was good for the dog. I now disagree with this wholeheartedly!!! Much of this boils down to “Communication” with the dog. Rote behavior, good or bad, is still rote behavior. Behavior by Habit. Completely dismissive of allowing your dog to answer his Drive, and the communication between handler and dog…Building a frustrated dog if you will. I am now focusing on motivating my dogs by being the most interesting, compelling thing in their lives. That doesn’t require toys, food, e-collars, or plastic clickers. It requires that my dog and I Communicate together. Giving my dog the “anticipation of the unexpected” (I need to trademark that phrase quick!) has turned them both into dogs that adapt quickly to change in or on the field, practice or real-time. Does this sound impossible? Well, it’s not.
However, it does require that you take a different approach. Rather than teach a dog to drool when it hears a bell, sit when you click, or track piles of food in clear footprints or trenches, develop your dogs motivations thru bonding. The Natural bond between human and canine is proven by time immemorial, but humans have complicated or even dismissed this relationship. Let’s stop training in a way that is unnatural to their mind, and stuffs their emotion back down the blackhole of scientific “theory”. Stop relying on Consistent Habits of Behavior science. Remember this too…Your dog will reflect your mindset. If you are bored, your dog will follow suit, etc, etc,.
The next time you work or play with your dog, leave the toys and treats at home, and get your dogs attention by being worthy of his focused attention. Play hide and seek, chase something different than usual as a toy. Use a DIFFERENT ball than usual, put the consistency aside and surprise your dog, AND Yourself! Learn to enjoy the adventure of finding new ways to play and work together…This adventure, depends on your imagination as a handler and a trainer. Focus on building that bond and you will both grow!