Training a dog isn’t simply teaching a dog to be obedient. Training a dog is making a social connection across species; it’s establishing a mutual language and coming to an agreement on how the two of us can share the same home and the same world. Laying this foundation makes everything that you do with your dog so much easier!
Try this simple exercise. Look at your dog and smile. Hopefully, your dog will move closer to you with a relaxed face and body (and likely a waggling tail!). My goal is to keep that social connection going no matter where I am with my dog, so whether I’m on a mountain trail or walking down a city street, I want to look at my dog and see that same relaxed and happy face looking back at me.
Why is that social connection important for training?
Modern training is simply a matter of pointing out what’s important to me, then raising the value of that behavior in the dog. Having a strong social connection helps dogs master all of these behaviors faster because we are working on a common goal.
Would you like a social connection that you can take anywhere?
Build your value. Rather than putting your dog’s food in a bowl, play some simple games where your dog is simply reinforced for orienting toward you.
- The “chuck it” game is good for this. Say your dog’s name. When he turns toward you, mark it with a word (any word said in a happy voice) or a click (if you are a clicker trainer) then toss the food behind your dog. You dog will fall in love with this game because a) food! b) movement c) dogs love games!
- The “move away” game is super useful. Step away from your dog. When your dog moves toward you, feed a piece of food, then step away again. Try really hard to not call your dog. Make smooching sounds in the beginning if your dog is distracted. This simple game can become a powerful habit that helps your dog remember to move toward you anytime, anyplace. When my dogs are off leash, I rarely call them, they just come running when I stop. That behavior is directly related to this game. Moving away means orient back to me. Me standing still means food is available. That becomes a pretty powerful recall because it’s the dog’s idea from start to finish. (Research shows that dogs are more likely to remember and practice behaviors when its their choice rather than a command.)
- Use your omnipotent powers for opening doors so teach a powerful eye contact. Pause at the door. Say nothing and just keep looking at your dog. When your dog stops looking at the door and glances at you, mark it with a word and open the door. Open for any glance at the beginning then begin to wait for eye contact. Again, I encourage you not to say anything. A variation of this is a “permission to go out the door” game. I play with all of my dogs. I stand in the opening of the door with my feet about a foot apart and wait. When one of the dogs makes eye contact with me, I say their name and they get to dash out the door. Dogs that don’t get the game learn from watching others (did you know that dogs not only learn from watching dogs, the latest research shows that they learn from watching people?). It usually takes less than week for all dogs to be playing the “doorman” game.
- Build in a pause. My dogs love to go for walks, and I love to walk them, but I hate tight leashes. My dogs know how to make a leash loose and if they are struggling with that, I will give a small verbal cue, “uh oh,” works well and step backward a few steps. When my dog moves back to me, I reinforce with a couple of treats and praise, but don’t immediately begin walking. When my dog is all done sniffing, looking around, and ignoring me, she will make social contact again. I reinforce again and off we go. Once my dog understand that making a social connection will make me start walking, there is no longer any pulling at the leash to make me go – my dog is back by my side, making eye contact and telling me that she’s ready to go! Loose leash walking is the toughest challenge for most dogs, so be prepared to put lots of time into this exercise.
Nancy Abplanalp CPDT is a certified professional dog trainer and owner of Thinking Dogs LLC based in Davis, CA. She values science and education above belief systems, which has led to two teaching credentials and her attendance at numerous training conferences and seminars each year. You may reach Nancy from her website, www.thinkingdogs.net.