I have the opportunity to observe a large variety of people with their dogs everyday. At work, at play, or just hanging out. In fact, much of what I write about the communicative approach to dog-training was born of these sessions, by simply watching both human and dog interact. No matter which method of training you choose to discipline your dog in, you must, must, must, be able to Communicate effectively. Not just Trainer to Dog, but also in the reverse, Dog to Trainer. I suppose that it should have been an early lesson in the Communicative Approach, but these things often arise only in retrospect, or hindsight. And so it is with Self-Control…And by that, I mean your Self-Control as a trainer, handler, or human being. But what is Self-Control?
Let me start at ground zero for the definition as it is intended in this context.
Do you find yourself yelling at your dog?? Do you yell at the dog(s) you work with? Do you believe that yelling at dogs is in anyway helpful? If so, you lack self-control.
Observing kennel workers on a regular basis, I see more dependance on the high volume human voice than any other method. Closely followed by such silliness as spray bottles, and “Time Out” in a crate. All three of those methods show that “self-control” has degraded into eliminating what annoys the human involved. The dog learns nothing except that the human doesn’t understand the first thing about dogs or their training. Will yelling at a dog (or a pack of dogs) quiet them for any meaningful length of time? No, simply put. In fact, it probably has the opposite effect. If you try to prevent unwanted barking by yelling at the dog, the dog thinks that you are taking part in the barking, and will amp it up accordingly. If you are trying to eliminate an unwanted behavior in your dog, will yelling stop the behavior? No, and it may even raise the dogs anxiety level. “Fluffy!!! DON’T YOU PEE ON THAT RUG!!! DON’T DON’T DON’T!!!!” Well, not only does the dog not understand your words, but your volume only confuses his ability to read your body language.
The only humans that really need to yell, are military drill sergeants. But they have a different goal, and a very different individual in front of their steely gaze. That may be why some dog trainers confuse yelling with a useful tool. It works with people that are being conditioned to obey commands in the stress of battle. For the most part, your dog is just NOT under the same demand. Nor is the dog as intelligent as a human, that can understand the “why” of such conditioning. All a dog knows is the Energy or Emotion that your yelling produces.
Some of the most self-controlled dog trainers that I’ve watched, have been the Decoys in top level bitework. They understand how to raise a dogs level of excitement to a given point, and just as efficiently lower it back to what I’ll call “Petting the dog is now possible” level. They use their own body language and energy to slow the dog, often without using the voice at all…Yet they use their voice to Raise the dogs level to the attack level.
Another great place to observe Self-control with dog training is Agility. The best competitors never yell at their dog, mistakes are corrected by hand signals usually, but also with contact of an instructive nature. NOT Striking, but guiding. Yes, I know that yelling can be heard at any of these events at some point, but not everybody is thinking properly.
Want to observe “Lack of Self-Control” in its native habitat? Try a dog park on a Saturday. Lots of dogs, lots of distractions, lots of dog owners struggling to keep their dog under control. You can always observe somebody chasing a dog across the field yelling at the top of their lungs to “Get back here you stupid dog!!!!”
Communication that truly helps is always given in a calm manner. Yes, the intensity level (Not the Volume) can be properly raised by the human, should the lesson require it. I use as an example the “down-stay”. Which is actually a misnomer. The dog should be taught that “Down” means STAY. The release from Down is always another command, whether verbal or visual. But that energy level comes from the Trainers physical demeanor. Anger, which almost always begets yelling, has no place on the training field or while working with your dog anywhere. Your dog reads Anger in only a negative sense, never as a response to the knowledge of how important a lesson may be. Dogs don’t think things thru that prism. They sense your emotion as raw, intimidating, fearful. Not Protective, which may very well be your intended purpose. The dog cannot delineate between anger and importance, because the concept is beyond his cognition. Yelling at a human child to “Stay Out of The Road!” might work because the child can be taught to think of the inherent danger of such actions. Not so your dog. And, truth be told, yelling at your child or any other human being is generally counterproductive as well. Learning to calmly discipline and instruct will make all of us better at life’s varying situations. There will always be that one boss, parent, trainer, or other human that feels that a Loud Voice is the most effective tool. They are usually the most avoided and lonely people. We simply don’t enjoy being pushed around by aggressiveness, and we usually respond badly to such treatment. Put yourself in an empathetic mode with your dog, and develop self-control, or risk living in a state of constant non-compliance with dogs.
Occasionally, you will see a human lose their cool at a competition, practice, or training session. They might call the dog names, throw a leash, or kick an object because of some perceived failure of the dog. Or the stark realization that the failure was purely on themselves. This is not as common at competitions, but it does happen in practices with others at a class, and it definitely happens in the privacy of our own sessions. Maybe you’ve had a rough day at work, on the crowded roads, or with a friend or family member. It happens to ALL OF US. Sometimes Life just happens that way. Pop Culture Psycho-Babble would advise “letting off steam”, maybe even busting things up and relieving the stress of anger. Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond that sort of craziness…Our Emotions flow thru our dogs, and once you’ve lit that spark, it’s gotta burn. The Book of Proverbs, 14:30 in the revised standard version Bible says it clearly: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot. Way too many people think of Anger as Passion. Overflowing Enthusiasm. But it’s not. Anger is just frustration that blocks even flow of energy. It has a place, but not in dog training. If you find yourself angry, put your dog up in a calm place, walk away, and find Tranquility. Sometimes it’s hard, but you’ll find its a better way.
You’ll notice that I haven’t talked about anything like hitting or kicking a dog. I shouldn’t have too really. You know better. And if you don’t, leave dogs alone and start a tree farm in North Dakota. I’m talking about violently taking your anger out on a dog, not physical corrections that involve correcting a dog. A small tap on the ribs is NOT out of line, though some might believe it is so. Punching with the fist, kicking hard enough to move the dog, or pinching an ear are what I’m referring too. If you are a Cesar Hater, don’t bother me with your complaints, because that’s way below the level of what humans are capable of doing. I’ve yet to see the man harm a dog out of anger, in spite of what you might want to convince others that he’s doing. I may not entirely agree with him, but I recognize that he’s been attacked more because of political correctness than his methodology.
I write predominantly about Working Dogs, not Aunt Mitzi’s fluffy, white, cockapoo. Large, driven dogs correct one another with far worse physical correction than we should, so small physical contact is not described as losing one’s self-control…
I have observed what I’m discussing here first hand. Outsiders will observe bite work for instance, and believe that mean human being. they see a wild, out-of-control, angry beast, attacking an equally angry human being. They always miss the subtle scritch between the ears that the handler will give to the dog when commanded out to a sit position. The dog is NOT out-of-control at all. And the same applies to the Handler. The phrase “Controlled Chaos” is often used in K9 circles, and a well-respected family of trainers even use that as a name for their business enterprise. Their dogs live in their home with their daughters very successfully. My feeling is that the family has mastered Calmness of Heart and Self-Control with their dogs. And those dogs are at the top of their game. That style probably permeates their home, including raising their children.
I’ve talked to my own dogs about Self-Control. I’ve asked them, “How do I train you in the best way?” They’ve shown me by behavior, which mind-set produces success in training, and working. The answer is always the same. “Keep your Cool Dad. I understand you, and if you listen calmly, I’m communicating with you in return…listen closely!