Recently, I was at a Show and Go. The first one I’ve been to in over a year. I was warming up my dog while another team was in the ring. Suddenly, I heard the handler loudly berating the dog. I looked up and saw her dragging the dog by its collar and ruff, her face close to the dog’s, yelling at it. I got a stomachache and recalled that this was one of the primary reasons I had stopped attending matches with my dogs. Now seriously. Do you really think the dog learned anything? And what could it have done that was so terrible? I know from what the owner was saying that the dog had not been about to attack or bite another person or dog. It just didn’t perform as she would have liked. It had sniffed the floor. Now, to be honest with you, if that was what happened in the ring, I would want to sniff the floor too. It’s certainly more rewarding than interacting with this handler. Her “training” style was to berate the dog when it was wrong, not help the dog at all, not explain what she wanted to the dog, and when the dog was correct, ignore it and continue on with the chain. When the dog did a nice job, there was no reward or praise, just a comment along the lines of “See, I know he can do it when he WANTS to” to the “judge”. But what have you done to make the dog “want” to? If that happens with regularity (which it did) why in the world would he WANT to? Whenever the dog was unsure about its job, it hung back and engaged in avoidance behaviors and then was corrected for that. Which reinforced the dog’s belief that he just can’t get it right. A downward spiral.
Do you think anything we do in the obedience ring is inherently rewarding to the dogs? Do you really think the dog “wants” to make you mad? Especially when you react the way you do? We know the dog is not having fun. But the owner certainly isn’t either. What are we doing here?
I think we just need to put ourselves in our dogs’ paws. Imagine you are starting a new job. Your boss explains some of your job but not all. And your boss explains some tasks in a foreign language that you don’t understand. You work really hard and try your best. When you do things well, your boss never acknowledges it. Periodically your boss comes running in, grabs you by your shirt collar, picks you up so your toes are dangling on the ground, and screams into your face. Then puts you down, talks to your co-worker in a foreign language and stands there while you go back to work. You’re really not sure what you did that warranted that “correction”. And you are a bit shaken up. You go back to work but your focus is not completely on task, you’re not sure what you did wrong (or how to be right). So you keep doing your best, and then, suddenly, it happens again…. . Over time what will happen? You certainly will not want to go to work. You will certainly NOT be motivated to do your best. Eventually you might figure out what your boss wanted, to a certain degree. And you will do it just to avoid the correction. But you certainly won’t have a good relationship with your boss, you won’t like your job, and you will not be happy or have a good attitude while working. Actually, you will probably hate your job. After a while your effort declines because you can’t make your boss happy no matter what you do, so why bother trying. You’re going to get into trouble regardless.
What would make you feel better about your job and your boss? Clear communication, genuine praise and appreciation for a job well done. When something is not done correctly, let the employee know, explain what they did wrong and how to do it correctly. If they don’t understand, explain it in another way.
When training your dog, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not. If you are frustrated or angry, take a break and walk away. If you are not sure how to fix the problem, seek help. And if that doesn’t work, look elsewhere. The answer is out there. Think about the problem from the dog’s perspective. If you do that, you will have a greater chance of figuring out WHY the dog is not doing what you want and how to fix it in a way that is fair and clear to the dog.
I don’t know about you, but I got started in dog sports because I absolutely loved and adored my dogs. I wanted to spend more time with them. I loved learning how to communicate with them in a way that deepens our relationship. I thought training was great fun. I loved watching the pieces come together as my dog learns their job. I loved the challenge of figuring out how to speak dog. I was (and still am) genuinely delighted when my dog learned a new task… how cool!! And yes, I made many, many mistakes along the way. I did not always train the way I do now. But my goal has always been, and continues to be, to evolve as a trainer so that I can be a better communicator to my dogs.
Your dog IS going to make many mistakes. We all do when we are learning something new and challenging. And even when we are not learning something new, we make mistakes. That’s part of life. That’s part of the journey. I embrace mistakes. Mistakes facilitate learning. In order to be fair to your dog and to create “want to” you need to build a high tolerance for errors. Be patient. Be kind. Be understanding. Be fair. Be a leader, a partner…not an unfair boss.