On our trip from Michigan to New York, I will be relying heavily on gps. I will pass many exits and many roads that are not the right choice to getting me to Cranberry Lake. Think about what it would be like if every time I passed an exit the gps said, "In 500 feet, don't turn there...". What if took a wrong turn and all the information I got was "No!" What if I wanted to made a side trip and I heard "Wrong"?
That's not what happens, is it? Your gps tells you what to do instead of what not to do. If you deviate from the route, it simply tells you what to do to get back on track towards your destination, and without judgement. Well, that's how we train dogs (and people, for that matter).
What is also true about using the gps is that if I rely solely on it's prompts, I may get to where I want to go, but I will not learn how I got there or know how to get back on my own. Similarly, we need our dogs to choose the behaviors they perform so they know what "pays" and what doesn't.
If we are simply lure them or physically move them into the positions we want them to be in we may get the end result, but at two costs; First, they didn't learn the actual behavior and so it's unlikely that they will offer it on their own or when cued; Second, and most important, they didn't get to choose the behavior.
Choice and predictability are vital to all animals. They are actually foundations of good mental health. If you remove choice and predictability, effects can include anxiety, stress, depression, and decreased immune function as well as other problems. When your choices matter, you become more confident. You become more engaged. You become more peaceful and feel better.
Unfortunately, in many of our relationships with our dogs, choice is in short supply. Choices we commonly limit include where they sleep, when they eat, what they eat, if/when they get to go outside and for how long, if and when they get to have social interactions, either with humans or other dogs, where they get to walk, how far they get to go from you, whether or not they get to reproduce and so on. How would you like these choices made for you?
Perhaps the most important choices that we limit involve our dog's emotional state. It's ironic in a way, because so many people limit their own actions due to daily fears and yet we expect our dogs, living in the same chaotic world as we do to somehow not have fears of their own.
If our dogs show fear or reactivity towards people or other dogs, or discomfort with sounds or body handling sometimes we expect them to "just get over it" or "work things out." And often we can power through, dragging the dog a bit on the walk until they start walking on their own, forcing an unpleasant initial greeting with ends up being ok, putting the pack and the booties on so they walk around like a zombie at first before getting used to it, but this comes at a cost. Our dogs may become more fearful or they may shut down or act out more. It does nothing for our relationship and for most people, that's why we got a dog in the first place, isn't it?
Dogs get put into all sorts of stressful situations that started out with best of intentions, like going for a walk or out to the dog park and yet how many dogs are not enjoying the interactions they're having with other people, dogs, or their environment in these situations. The stressful situations that I'm personally working on with Sparkle include travel, body handling, wearing backpacking gear, and being more comfortable with other people and other dogs. They're not stopping me from planning this trip, but are instead inspiring me to help her work through this so that she can enjoy this trip.
It should be clear by now that I'm not saying we keep our dogs in bubble and never expose them to anything stressful, because that's also removing choice. What I am saying, is be aware of what your dog likes and doesn't like and for the things s(he) doesn't like, work to change those associations and in a way that your dog is in control. And if you're not sure how to read your dog's body language, check this out.
The training that we've been working on as of late has focused on first, teaching Sparkle that her choices matter, and that the things that she has traditionally thought as scary might actually be not so bad or even good! We're also continuing to work on our recall. Here are some highlights:
It's Your Choice
- List all of the choices your dog has in life. Any new ones to add?
- Try to spell your dog's name in treats while they stay in a down or a sit. Post it on our Facebook page!
- Make note of something your dog doesn't love and start working on changing the association.