“Do you enjoy training with your dog?”
That’s my official first statement of every training session, private or group, with the Detection Sports Association. 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 wasted.
Be warned, I may slip into Drill Sergent 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 post was hatched in the last month as I’ve seen 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 sidearm…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.
The other example was a private student for scent-work. The dog knew it’s job well, 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 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, lets 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’s starting 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 most other trainers, based solely on the unbridled enthusiasm and energy that they put into training with their dog. They are unfettered by feeling self-conscious of their actions in the training ring, and the energy level is palpable during practices and competition. I’ve learned to watch the 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!