I had a fantastic opportunity last week to go and spend a day amongst some wonderful dog people and listening to an incredibly interesting presentation on how we live and work with dogs, in particular the emotional experience: of the dog, the caregivers, and of us as canine behaviour professionals. The whole day has given me so much to think about but some phrases in particular have really stuck in my mind, one of which has inspired me to write on the topic and explore it a little more in conjunction with the work on which I am currently focusing.
Something that was touched on during the presentation has really stuck in my mind and got me thinking (actually one of many things to do so!) It was looking at how we approach things with our dogs, and how that can so often be task-oriented. We concentrate on what we want the dog to do and how to get them to do that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely things that we need our dogs to know, and to be able to ask them to do certain things at times so that life can run smoothly for all of us. What is important to consider is whether asking them to do that particular thing at that moment is fair and appropriate, and to think about how we actually show them what it is that we would like from them.
Let’s break this down a little, and first of all look at appropriateness.
The very first question we ask should always be if what we are asking is fair to the dog, on both a species and an individual level. Dogs live in a very human-controlled world – we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs and with the money to buy stuff and so we’re very much the ones in charge. Society has certain expectations of dogs, of the way they should behave and what they should tolerate in the different situations they will encounter through their lives. And sometimes the ways that dogs are expected to behave aren’t really very closely connected to natural dog behaviour.
For example: many of you perhaps know that an area of particular interest for me is the dogs who are put under the label of ‘reactive’, the complex, sensitive dogs who can find social situations extremely difficult. A common thing we see when people are out with their dogs and they react, maybe barking and lunging, is a pull back on the lead and something like ‘No, sit!’
Logically this makes sense to us, to get the dog back under control and in a position where we can safely contain them. In that situation, however, 'sit' makes no sense to the dog at all. They don't feel safe and there is no way they can squash that down to do what we ask. It's not appropriate to ask them to do anything in that moment because the only thing they can think about is safety, of getting away to find relief (another word that cropped up often in the presentation and which will quite likely appear in upcoming articles) in creating some distance from whatever it is that's bothering them. This is done with perhaps the best of intentions but is not what the dog needs in that moment.
When looking at what we are teaching our dogs, there are two important considerations we have to think about before we start.
1. Is it fair on the dog to ask them to do this thing?
In the case of the sensitive dog mentioned just now, asking them to sit in that situation is not really fair to them because they are not in an emotional state where they can listen to us or learn.
Is it fair to tell a dog to 'stay' if someone is trying to touch them and the dog is attempting to move away? No, because the dog clearly does not want to interact at that time.
2. Is the way we are showing the dog how to do the thing we'd like them to do fair?
This is where the 'task vs team' in the article title comes into play.
Is it fair to physically place the dog into the position we want, or to push them such as a hand on the hind end pushing them down into a sit? This is the way many of us grew up teaching a sit (the joys of growing up in the Woodhouse era, when it was likely paired with a jerk on a choke chain) but physically forcing a dog into position is absolutely not fair.
Is it fair to use something like a clicker or a marker word to capture the moment our dog does something we like so we can them reward them? Absolutely. If we use capturing, it's a behaviour the dog is offering themselves and so is completely fair.
Is it fair to use methods like using a reward to lure a dog into the position we want? Most of the time luring is fine to use as a method, but there does need to be a little bit of careful thought put into the position we are wanting from the dog, and not trying to pressure them to do something they really don't want to or would not be comfortable for them.
I am definitely not 'anti-training' as there are some things our dogs really do need to know, vital life skills that will enhance their happiness and comfort in their world, and some dogs really enjoy the process of training (my own dog is one of them - show him a clicker and he will joyously start throwing behaviour options at me because he actively enjoys working together, and food or play or fuss, which are all great rewards as far as he's concerned).
What we need to consider is the 'how' and the approach that we take to this training. What is the most important thing in the training?
Is it making sure that the thing we want from the dog happens? Where 'task' becomes the most important thing, something to be achieved above all else?
Or is it making sure that we are working together as a team? That the dog is as happy and comfortable in their environment as possible before we ask anything more of them? And if that's not the case, we do whatever we can to help the dog feel comfortable in that situation (or let them leave/get them out of that situation if it's something they are not able to cope with).
Most important of all, are we considering how the dog feels and what they need in that moment? Because that really is the central consideration, the first thing we should be thinking about when working with dogs, either our own or clients' dogs for the professionals amongst us.
Be a team. Always.