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Dog Training; the Bigger Picture

Imagine that you offer to stop at the grocery store on the way home and ask your spouse/ partner/ roommate/ kids etc. “Do you need anything while I am at the store?” They respond “Yes! Thanks! I DON’T need milk, bread, or eggs.” You would likely be puzzled and respond, “Ok…. Well what DO you need?” Only for them to respond “NO! Not bread, milk, or eggs.” How long would this go on before you would resign, give up, and turn your attention elsewhere? Not long, right? This is quite possibly the most detrimental error I see in humanity at large, but especially in dog training. We, as a society, have gotten really good at recognizing and pointing out what we do NOT like. And while there is value in knowing what does not serve us, the reality is that we would get a heck of a lot further a hell of a lot faster if only we identified, recognized, and reinforced the positives. This is the theory in positive reinforcement training, but also is the Law of Attraction; the idea that like attracts like. That what we put our attention on is what we will continue to create and find more of. If the belief is true that we will always find what we are looking for, perhaps ask yourself, what are YOU looking for in your furry best friend? Are you looking for opportunities to mark and reinforce things you like? For example, Fido voluntarily sits down and you choose to state “Yes! Good Sit Fido!” and reward with a small piece of kibble/ treat/play/ praise/ pet or other reward system that speaks to your dog. OR are you looking to tell Fido what you do NOT want? For example: Does your training sound more like “No Fido! Get down. Off. OFF Fido!!” Does your dog then look at you confused and reattempt the same, or a similar behavior? Guess why? Because much like you at the grocery store, they are confused! Fido’s Internal Dialogue: “Ok…. So she said “no” when I jumped at her from the front, maybe I’ll try to jump at her from behind…. Ok, nope, no definitely not. Another “No” again… Maybe if I run and jump at her? “No” again…Hmm.” How long does your dog go through this problem solving process prior to shutting down, disengaging, or redirecting their attention somewhere else, perhaps even less desirable? Dogs are problem solvers and they are constantly trying to get their needs met. In order to peacefully coexist with our canine friends in as healthy and happy a way as possible, it is our duty to empower them to make good choices independently. We do this by training our dogs, 24-7, teaching them what we like, what we expect, and empowering them in their autonomy so that we may coexist in a partnership relationship alongside them that is mutually beneficial.

The choice is ours. We will always find what we are looking for. And whether you choose to look for the best in your furry friend, or otherwise, you will always find it. Choose to look for and recognize their strengths. Build on those strengths. Accept them for who they are, (rather than what you think they SHOULD be. Doing anything other than meeting our pup where they are in the moment, from moment to moment, does nothing for us.) And then apply ALL of this to yourself and those around you as well. We are always doing the best we can with what we have. Always with compassion, always with nonjudgement, always choosing intentionally. Practice Training Exercise: Set aside 50 individual pieces of kibble each morning. Keep this easily accessible; in your pocket, on the counter, in jars throughout the apartment, etc. Aim to recognize and reward 50 positive behaviors in your dog throughout the day. When you see something you like, Mark it by saying: “YES!!! GOOD _____” and REINFORCE IT by giving a piece of kibble or small treat (think the side of the tip of your thumbnail; we’re just looking for a taste to make the positive connection, not to help our pooches gain excess weight.) As you and your pooch get better at this exercise and you run out of kibble more and more quickly, increase the amount of handfeeding and training that you do with them. Set aside 1/2 cup of kibble/ 1 meal, etc. and aim to Mark & Reinforce as many positive behaviors as you can. Marking and Reinforcing can be done anywhere, but know that the more external stimuli and distractions there are in the environment, the more difficult it is for your pooch to maintain engagement. Our goal is to always be the most rewarding and engaging thing in our pup’s environment, so get down on their level, change the pitch of your voice, get their eye contact on you, touch them gently on the side while asking for a “Look” etc. It is OUR job to engage and educate our dog. Mostly importantly, remember that your relationship with your dog should be fun and engaged! Training should be fun! If you are not having fun, your dog will feel that and have difficulty having fun as well. Keep it light, make it an engaging game, and when you’re met with resistance, pivot and find the next opportunity to set them up for success, then build on it! Happy training!

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