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Relationship Based Dog Training

"What is possible between a human and an animal is possible only within a relationship."
 -Suzanne Clothier

Ethologists (scientists who study natural animal behavior) have discovered exciting things about the emotional world of animals that show there is much more to dogs than just instinct. Dogs have emotions not unlike our own. Knowing what we now know, we cannot ignore that the dog has feelings, too.

Relationship based dog training strives to meet the needs of both the human and the dog. It is an empathetic approach of taking into account the dog's point of view. There are times, of course, when the dog's desires cannot be considered. Molly may want to chase the kitty across the highway, but she cannot be allowed to for her own safety. However, we can still focus on making her happy she complied rather than the old approach of making her sorry she didn't.

Setting the Dog up To SucceedMya and little boy in a hammock

Relationship based dog training is actually teaching more than training. It is a lot like raising children. The school system is designed to set children up for success. First, they learn to count. Then, they learn how to add and subtract. Next is multiplication and division. Then, it's time for Algebra. If a child has trouble learning multiplication, they must repeat the grade before moving on. It would be unfair to move him to the next grade before he mastered the last one. We don't try to teach children to do Algebra before they have mastered multiplication. 

Yet, we often do the equivalent to our dogs. We ask him to learn to Sit in the middle of a park full of screaming children and feisty squirrels before he has learned to Sit in the quiet of his living room. It is setting the dog up for failure, and it starts a vicious circle of frustration for both handler and dog which breaks down the relationship. 

Think of dog training like the education system. Start with something easy. When the dog masters that step, build on that success and ask for something a little more complicated. Sometimes, just like children, a dog may have to repeat a grade before moving on. It's not fair to ask him for something more complicated when he could not master the basics. 

Sam smiles
When teaching your dog something new, follow this formula to help him succeed:

  1. First, teach the behavior without any distractions.
  2. Gradually increase the difficulty (ie longer Sit-Stays), still without distractions.
  3. Gradually add in distractions. Start with minor distractions and slowly work up.
  4. Finally, combine difficulty and distractions.
  5. Do not move to the next step until the last step has been mastered.
  6. If your dog has trouble with any step, go back to the previous step.
  7. Be CLEAR with your instructions and CONSISTENT with your follow through.
  8. Praise your dog when he gets it right, and let him know when he gets it wrong. Don't make him guess; provide constant feedback.
  9. Pay attention to your dog's body language. If she is severely stressed in training sessions, modify your approach or end the session and try again when she is more relaxed.
  10. Make learning fun... for the both of you!

Listening to what the Dog has to say

What happens when you ask Molly to do something, and she ignores your command? Often, our reaction is anger. How dare she defy me! Or, we might respond with frustration. She never listens to me... I give up! Either way, the assumption is that Molly knows exactly what you want and she is just being stubborn. We don't consider that Molly may have a very good reason for saying no that has nothing to do with us. 

Some Possible Reasons Your Dog May Say No

  • She does not really understand the command.
    Dogs have difficulty generalizing. Just because they know Sit in their living room with you standing close to them does not mean they know Sit in the backyard with you standing 10' away. Also, it takes somewhere between 30 and 75 CORRECT repetitions for a dog to truly understand a command. The incorrect repetitions do not count.
    Solution: practice the command in different, controlled situations to be sure she truly 'gets it'.
  • She is distracted and has not yet learned how to think through distractions.
    It could be a case of sensory overload. Squirrels running up a tree are exciting to dogs, and they can't think about anything else, unless they've had practice.
    Solution: practice the command with gradually increasing distractions.
  • She is hurt or sick and not physically capable of following the command.
    This is when it pays to know your dog. If she suddenly starts behaving differently than her usual self, it's a clear indication that something is wrong.
    Solution: learn your dog's personality quirks. When she behaves differently from the dog you know, it may be time for a visit to the Vet.
  • She is too scared or stressed to think clearly.
    Stress can be handled in two basic ways. Some go into overdrive, and some completely shut down. Either way, they cannot focus on commands for the stress and anxiety. Remember how hard it was to take a test when you were stressed out?
    Solution: If it's a training session, it's time to end it. If it's an everyday situation that can't be avoided, make it as unstressful as possible and don't ask for more than she can do.
  • She did not hear you.
    Have you ever been so absorbed in a t.v. show that you didn't hear someone right beside you ask you a question? Experiments with rats have shown this to be a real phenomenon. If one is hyperfocused on something, sound does not even register in the brain.
    Solution: make sure you have your dog's attention before giving her a command.
  • She does not recognize that your commands are not a choice.
    Dogs do what works. If they are enjoying themselves and you ask them to do something, they need a good reason to stop having fun to do what you ask.
    Solution: work on your leadership exercises. Only give your commands once, and then follow through on them. Help if you have to. Be CLEAR, CONSISTENT, FIRM, and FAIR. 

What is he Thinking?

We can't get inside our dog's mind, no matter how much we wish we could. We can, however, get insight into what our dog is feeling by his body language. Most of communication between humans is done by body language. ALL of a dog's communication is body language. This illustrated guide to dog body language will help you learn to read dog.

To learn to speak dog, try Norwegian Dog Trainer Turid Rugaas' On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals.

Dogs Never Lie About Love by Jeffrey Masson is an excellent look into the emotional world of dogs. Read an excerpt here. Better yet, read the whole book. The Lexington County Library has a copy.

If your desire is to get the most out of the relationship with your dog, the best book you'll ever read is Bones Would Rain From the Sky by Suzanne Clothier. Read an excerpt here. Or read an article about relationship based training from her website.

Relationship Counseling

If you don't have the kind of relationship with your dog that you want, don't give up too soon. Most relationships can be saved with a little effort. Start by putting yourself in her paws and really trying to see her perspective. Hire a behaviorist to be your therapist. Use the resources on this and other websites. You may be pleasantly surprised! Having a dog is supposed to be fun. If it's not fun for you, work on the relationship! 
P. O. Box 715 •  Lexington, SC 29071  •  (803) 622-9813 •  caretoadopt [ at ]