Most clients are duly impressed by what I can accomplish with their dogs. At the same time, it’s important for my clients to remember that I, too, am human, and am imperfect, AND, have imperfect dogs!
Training takes time, consistency and patience. Even after dogs learn behaviors, there is work that must be done over their lifetime to maintain behaviors. Without practice in this way, behaviors can deteriorate. It’s also important to remember that behavior isn’t always foolproof: the right (or wrong!) circumstances can happen to make even the most well-skilled trainer a tad frustrated.
And so, I will relay to you the story of Jasper and the frog, which illustrates a key point in training for me, and my philosophy. Jasper often assisted with training when I owned my first business in Denver, and after a long day working with clients, I decided to take him to Cherry Creek State Park’s off-leash area as a reward. I hadn’t had a lot of quality time with him as of late, and while we were both tired, I felt we could use the fun. I had his “grade-A” rewards with me—some turkey hot dogs and his chuck-it ball.
After walking for quite some time, as we were turning back to end our excursion there, dusk began to fall, and frogs started coming out. Jasper had not interacted with frogs before and took to playing with one right away. At first I thought to discourage it, as I didn’t want any harm to come to the frog, but as I saw how gentle he was being and how much fun he was having, I felt there was no harm in allowing him to continue. I kept walking while he was playing, figuring he’d catch up, as he never does let me get too far away without catching up.
However, Jasper found this frog much more fun and kept following him into taller and taller grasses and bushes. I began to call him and pulled out all the stops that usually get his attention—throwing his ball, making noises he finds intriguing and exciting, running away, trying to entice him with hot dogs—but nothing was working this time. It was getting darker and I was tired and ready to leave! I was also starting to worry about other creatures that could be out there, like snakes, who could cause him harm, and I admit it made me a bit anxious.
Those who have trained with me know I never advocate the use of harsh tones or punishment at all, especially when calling a dog by name to come to you. I encourage the use of a positive interrupter and trying to redirect the dog on what to do, being exciting and inviting as opposed to threatening. This night at the park, though, I was being tested. I was tired, I was worried and I was feeling like I had no other options but to lower my voice in a deep, growly tone and say quite harshly—“Jasper! Get over here now!”
Jasper came out, slinking along the ground. So many people interpret this as a sign of feeling “guilty.” Of course, I know better as a dog trainer. Jasper was not guilty—he was just finding my tone unpleasant and was trying to appease me. It wasn’t very nice, what I did to get him to come out.
I have relayed this story to a few of my colleagues and clients. Colleagues like to say things like, “It worked because you don’t overuse it,” and “Don’t feel bad—it happens sometimes.” Clients are sometimes surprised by what I’ve relayed, but also relieved that it’s not always rainbows and unicorns—that I, too, have not-so-perfect moments of pure positive reinforcement all the time. It makes me more relate-able, and helps them forgive themselves for similar decisions they’ve made.
By and large, pet owners have no need for corrections in the traditional sense. If we train our dogs very well on behaviors we DO want, and maintain them well by practicing them in many different scenarios, then by and large we will never have to resort to yelling, or worse. But sometimes life happens and it’s very grey, and sometimes in a life-or-death situation I may end up doing something that isn’t completely force-free (like yanking on a leash when a dog wanders out too far into oncoming traffic, or grabbing out of his mouth a chicken bone or other life-threatening object). Those times should be rare.
A few years back, I was very excited to attend a lecture by Dr. Susan Friedman based on her course, “Living and Learning with Animals.” She said something that made a considerable impression on me, and I found it within an article she had written for Bird Talk Magazine:
Think of it this way: Gaining an animal’s trust is like building up a bank account. We make deposits into the trust account one positive interaction at a time. Positive interactions are not just about animals gaining valued rewards but also about having the power to make choices. Alternatively, we make withdrawals from the trust account with negative interactions, such as the use of force, threats and punishment. Even small or inadvertent withdrawals add up over time, putting the relationship in the red. If a withdrawal is so big that it exceeds the positive balance, we risk bankrupting the relationship.
This is a great analogy for us to consider. My relationship with other people, pets and any life form is based on trust. When we are able to make positive interactions the crux of our training program, we are helping our dogs to learn how to cope with life and make the right decisions, and growing our bank account of trust. We empower them to have control over their lives, which is important, because all life NEEDS that empowerment to learn and thrive. If I’m always punishing or making things unpleasant for my dogs or clients, they will not feel good about working with me. It will undermine the relationship and trust.
Great training is about having a great bank account balance, and I’m happy to help clients achieve that, even if we’re not perfect all the time! Together, we can continue to improve our skills so the bank account can grow each and every day. That is my promise to you!
Thanks for reading!