Good Dog. Seriously. Say It.

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Photo by Jim Thomason

I have a lot of pets. And many of them are pet peeves.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously folks, I do have a lot of pet peeves, especially when it comes to the animals that share our world. And hey, one of my first pet peeves is that I don’t call them “pets.” I’m going to admit it. That word annoys me.

Pet is something I do to greet my dogs, to comfort them, to calm myself. It’s an verb for me, not a noun. Using the word pet to describe my dogs actually seems demeaning to me. My dogs, horses, chickens, unintentional house mice, etc., are my companions. They are my animal family. They are not furry/feathered humans, nor are they little slaves sent here to do my bidding. They are animals who are willing and kind enough to abandon a lot of their natural instincts to try to co-exist in our crazy, human-focused world.

That’s pretty amazing to me. I think it deserves a little respect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the term “fur babies.” Nope. Let’s not go there.

Today’s pet peeve, however, actually focuses on how we speak to our animals, how we choose to try to communicate with them. As a professional dog trainer (fancy certificate, letters after my name and all!), I get a lot of calls about “bad dogs.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog won’t listen.”

“My dog is out of control.”

I listen. I ask questions. I imagine what I will find when we finally meet. And I’m usually spot on.

What I generally find on  visits with “out of control” dogs is a complete lack of clear, meaningful, and consistent communication. So what I’m telling you is that 98.9% of the time…it’s not the dog’s fault.

And more than a lack of dog training know-how, I have found that it’s actually a mindset issue. As humans, we still feel the need to be very large and in charge when it comes to our animals. And when other people come around, it seems humans often go into hyper-militant mode, as if to suggest that their dogs behave like perfect little angels every moment of the day…except right now. You should see how people act when an actual dog trainer steps into the mix. It’s as if everyone suddenly has something to prove.

“Sit. Bo-bo, sit. SIT. SIT. BO-BO SIT. Sit down. SIT. YOU SIT RIGHT NOW. Bo-Bo…come here. SIT. COME. NO. NOOOOO. SITSITSIT.”

Kind of makes me want to toss an “h” in that sit somewhere.

And then I get asked how to “correct” that. “How do I make him mind?” “See how stubborn he is?”

OK. I can’t give an entire dog training 101 here (because hey, I don’t give that away for free! Bills to pay, people. Dog food to buy), but what I can do is help you get your head in the game. The right game.

First, dogs require constant feedback when they are learning. That means as good as you are at telling them when they are wrong, you need to be equally as good at telling them when they are right. Equally good. Tell them when they are RIGHT. In fact, spend more time doing that than you do telling them how wrong they are.

I’m going to let you think about that one for a moment. Here’s a gratuitously cute puppy photo you can ponder whilst you chew on that paragraph…

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Ok…all done pondering? Great. So here’s my next free tip: Let’s change your vocabulary.

Sometimes changing your mindset is as easy as changing the words you choose. Here are my new training words for you:

  1. Instead of train, use the word teach.
  2. Instead of command, use the word cue.
  3. Instead of correct, use the word redirect.

Let’s start with those three and see how it goes. Teach, cue, redirect. Doesn’t that feel better already? Just switching to those words and paying attention to their meaning, their undertone, could make a world of difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

This is not a battle. Dogs have no hidden agenda to overthrow the world. They repeat behavior that gets them attention. They avoid things that are unpleasant (and we wonder why they don’t always come when called…). Let me give you some real-life examples.

I visited a home with an “out of control” dog. The dog was said to have horrible manners when guests came over. The dog wouldn’t listen. The dog jumped all over people.

“He knows better. He’s just being stubborn.”

The moment I hear that stubborn word, I wonder which being in the house it really describes. And then I giggle to myself. Usually to myself.

So I asked my client to show me the dog and let me see how they were dealing with the situation. That’s when I got the SIT-SIT-SIT-NOOOO-NOOOO-DOWN-SIT-OFFFFFF-NOOOOOOOOO routine. I listened to the tone of their voices. I saw the chaos escalate. I saw the humans growing frustrated and more excited. I saw the dog doing the same.

And even when the dog wasn’t actually trying to jump on me, the humans were still barking commands.

So when the dog came toward me and kept four feet on the floor, I quietly said, “Yes! Good boy.” Then I offered the dog a little treat.

I backed a few steps away and invited the dog to follow me. I had his attention now because I was speaking softly, I wasn’t stressed. He liked that. He followed.

When he came to me, I asked him to sit. He did. I said “Yes!” I gave him a tiny cookie. I praised him. Then I backed away and did it a few more times. Pretty soon, every time I cued the dog to “come,” he ran to me and slammed his butt to the ground with his tail wagging happily.

I praised him. And looky there, I used all three of our new vocabulary words.

I taught the dog what I expected instead of just waiting for him to screw up.

I helped the dog learn a cue, one indicating what I expected, and also a word that marked the moment when he did something right. “Yes.” I captured behavior I liked.

And I redirected the dog. The dog was jumping on people because he was friendly and wanted attention. I showed him a proper way to earn attention. He listened. He learned.

Here’s another example. I visited a family who had a dog that would not come when called. The dog would play keep-away, staying just out of reach. The family was frustrated.

So I asked them to show me.

We went out in the yard. The dog chased a bird. When he ran to the other side of the yard, one of the humans said “Fritz, COME!”

Now, don’t think for one second that dogs don’t understand the tone of our voices. They do.

When this person said “Fritz, COME,” the sharp tone me want to back away slowly. Seriously…why do we have to change everything about ourselves when we go into dog training mode?

So Fritz, who was still on the lookout for that bird, did hear his person say COME. And he did look back at us. That glance back was the moment of truth…what would happen next?

Well, the owner repeated his command even more sternly, “FRITZ! COME! COME!” It sounded angry to me. It sounded angry to Fritz too.

“FRITZ. RIGHT NOW. COME HERE RIGHT NOW. FRRRRRRITZ!”

Fritz didn’t come. In fact, he glanced away (which is actually dog-speak for “hey, human, chill out! Let’s all calm down).

“See? He’s stubborn.”

Huh. Ok.

“Let’s try something different,” I suggested.

I went to within a few feet of Fritz. In a happy voice, I said, “Fritz, come!”

The moment Fritz looked at me, I said, “YES! Goood boy! Good!”

Guess what? Fritz came right to me. Because I praised him in the moment he acknowledged my cue by looking at me, I gave him a reason to want to come to me. We communicated. I was teaching Fritz that the cue “come” would be followed by something good/fun/rewarding/calm/happy.

Fritz liked that. I wasn’t scary. I was nice. That made Fritz feel good and want to be near me.

So Fritz’s dad, who was also a really nice person when he dropped his alpha dog trainer persona, gave it a whirl. When Fritz heard the cue “come” and glanced at his person, he was praised. Oh hey, Fritz liked that and came RUNNING on cue.

Just capturing that one little questioning glace back and giving Fritz the promise of good things to come, made all the difference in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The true key to good dog training is to be a teacher, not a trainer. And to give clear praise when praise is due. And perhaps most importantly to recognize when praise is due. Be in the moment. Your dog is.

OH if only I had a dime for every time I’ve seen people continually telling their dogs what NOT to do, but never capturing that moment when the dog is actually doing what they want. I would be a wealthy, wealthy retired dog trainer.

Think it through. Go talk to your dog. Talk. Don’t holler, yell, get all stern and scary. It’s not about intimidation. It’s about building communication.

Now get out there and play with your dog. Oh, and here’s another gratuitously adorable puppy photo as your reward. Good human. Goooood.

yoga-dog

(Bo-Bo and Fritz are not actual dog names. But the stories above are quite true. So true. Very true. Let’s just let all of my training clients wonder if it’s them…)

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