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It's the Dog's Idea


I arrive at my first session with an owner and her dog, Phyllis. The owner and I are talking out in front of their house. Phyllis is on leash, standing there mindlessly barking at me, as the owner tells me her dog’s issues and problems, and the things she wants to work on. I ignore the barking until it stops, then I toss a treat her way. Phyllis goes over, sniffs the treat and eats it, then returns and begins to bark at me again. When she pauses the barking, I toss a treat behind her. She goes and gets it, returns to the end of the leash, barks once, and looks at me. I toss a treat. She gets it, comes back, and stands and watches me. I toss another. Meanwhile, the owner is just talking with me, not paying any attention to the game I’m playing with Phyllis – rewarding her for not barking.

Phyllis quietly watches me for a bit, then sits. I toss a treat behind her. She gets it, and returns and quietly sits in front of me. I toss another treat. She returns and sits again. I keep talking to the owner and pay no attention to Phyllis, but I can see her watching me, and thinking ….

She lies down, and I toss a treat. She gets the treat, comes back and lies down in front of me again. This happens four or five more times, the lying down, the tossing – and now Phyllis is totally enjoying this. She thinks she has figured out a way to manipulate treats out of me.

Meanwhile, the owner is telling me how bad this dog is, and that she knows no commands except Sit, and she only does it sometimes. I ask, “Does she know Lie Down?” The answer is, “No, we could never get her to do that one.”

So I take two steps to my left, and Phyllis follows me. I quietly said, “Phyllis, Lie Down,” and she proudly flops down on the ground with her tail wagging. I say “YES!” and give her a treat. The owner’s mouth falls open. “How did you do that?” she asks…

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Back in the old days, trainers and dog owners would command their dogs to perform behaviors – sometimes pushing them into Sits or Downs, jerking on leashes and shouting lots of “NO.” Sometimes the dog would hesitate, afraid to make a mistake, and the owner would repeat the command in a louder voice, and then tell everybody how “stubborn” the dog is.

My best teachers in elementary school made learning a game, and we all wanted to play. Their classes were fun, and we looked forward to them – not even thinking about how much we were learning. I arrive at a dog training session with the energy of the director of a children’s holiday pageant. I reward the great stuff and ignore the mistakes. “NO” only slows down the game. Give a cue (command) once, and let the dogs think. When they respond correctly, I cheer and toss a reinforcer. Tails wag. The next time, the behavior happens faster because they aren’t afraid to make mistakes in my class.

I love to train dogs to become happy, thinking, active learners.

I want them to think that what they are doing is their idea! Make training a game, and everybody wins. With the training techniques of shaping, targeting and capturing, this will happen with even “untrainable, stubborn” dogs. Dogs respond faster, training is fun, and you get to see those fascinating brains work – almost watch the wheels turn. Training becomes teamwork, and the owners and the dogs bond for life.

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