Setting Expectations

The simplest way to describe my method of dog training is to say that “I train dogs the way that dogs train dogs.”  What this means is that I communicate with them in their own language, a language that is very easy for them to understand.  Of course, it’s not easy to learn to communicate in “dog”, but with enough time, I feel that anyone can do it.  Most other styles of training require both dog and human to learn a new language and meet in the middle.  For instance, the human has to learn to use a clicker and the dog has to learn what the clicker means.  Though dogs can be incredibly smart, they will only be able to learn so much in a new, made up language.  If our goal is to take our understanding of dog behavior to the next level, and to help our dogs to live their most fulfilling lives, it’s best to learn to speak in our dog’s natural language. 

Dogs are constantly communicating with each other.  They use body language, eye contact, touch and sometimes sound.  A dog that holds it’s head low and wags it’s tail may be saying “I’m friendly and don’t want any trouble”.  A dog that pulls it’s lip back slightly and lets out a quiet growl is saying “give me some space.”  There are human versions of communicating these same things to dogs. 

Dogs are also constantly “training” each other.  They do this in order to keep the pack functioning correctly.  A good example of this that most people have seen at some point, is when an older dog snaps at a puppy who is getting too intense while trying to play.  The older dog will put up with the behavior to a point (after all, it’s just a puppy!) but when the pup crosses the line, boom, the older dog quickly snaps and the game is stopped instantly.  The puppy is not offended, not hurt, and understands the communication completely.  Next time, it will keep it’s game at a lower and more respectful intensity.  Two things happened here: the older dog said “no” to the puppy in the moment AND set an expectation for next time.  This is what we should be doing when we correct any behavior in a dog.

Let’s say that we’re training a dog to stay out of the kitchen.  Our goal is not only to correct the behavior in the moment but to set an expectation for later, we don’t want to be constantly harping on our dog to get out of the kitchen or furiously handing out treats to redirect them.  There are two important keys to communicating this to our dogs in their natural language.  The first is timing: our correction has to take place the instant the dog starts to think about coming into the kitchen.  The closer your correction is to this moment, the more effective it will be.  The second is how the correction itself is administered: I’m a big fan of a quick snap of the fingers accompanied by a powerful “blocking” body language (more on this in the next blog).

Imagine you have your dog laying down on the border of the kitchen while you’re cooking.  When you drop some food, a dog who hasn’t had expectations set will have body language that looks like this: the ears perk up, the head tilts and the eyes focus on spilled food, the dog gets up, scurries over to the food, and starts to eat.  The closer your correction to the moment the ears perk up, the more effective it will be.  The reason is, that though I just rattled off several changes that the dog’s body made to get to the food, there was only one shift in the state of mind and that is actually what we are correcting.  We are correcting the mind, not the body.  The dog was in a resting state of mind and then it shifted to a crumb-hunting state of mind.  If we make our correction the instant this shift takes place, the dog will go right back to a resting state.  When you correct the mind, the body will follow and the dog will remember for next time.  If you make these corrections correctly and consistently, you should be able to leave the mess on the floor, go to the other room to get the broom, and come back to your dog resting in it’s place having not touched the food. 

Dog training is hard to learn and if you are just beginning there is no way that you’ll get it right the first time.  The important thing is to start thinking about things correctly and understanding the way that our dogs' minds work.  With enough practice this kind of thing will become second nature.  I often tell people that it’s like riding a bike (in case bike riding isn’t used for enough analogies), no one can tell you how to do it, they can only point you in the right direction and let you figure it out yourself. 

In my next blog I’d like to elaborate on communicating to our dogs in their natural language.  There is one specific trick that I’ll share that can instantly take your training to the next level.  In the mean time, start to think about your corrections as not only a way to stop a behavior in the moment, but to set an expectation for next time.  Also, remember that when you are making a correction, you’re not correcting what the dog’s body is doing, but what the dog’s mind is doing.  Correct the mind and the body will follow. 

Thanks for reading!