The Art of Dog Training: A Calm State of Mind
Good dog training should ultimately give you the skills you need so that you can absolutely influence the decisions of your dog upon a request or command, and your training should result in your dog being able to accept and execute those requests. However, great dog training is when you don’t need to use those commands to be able to live life together.
I’m the youngest of five children and never had my own anything. It was hand-me-down everything until I got my first dog for my twelfth birthday. All I wanted to do was learn how to train my new girl, my very own Australian cattle dog. I begged my mom to let me take Kizzie to obedience classes. She finally gave in, and off I went. My dog bit the instructor on day one. Not a very auspicious beginning for this young, aspiring dog trainer. I was mortified; plus, the lady who was going to teach me everything I desperately wanted to know just got bit right in front of me. I was more determined than ever to figure this all out! I learned heel/sit/down/stay/come with the best of them and won the top award in that novice class.
And yet, even after all that, I still had a dog that had some strange, neurotic behaviors back at home. She would obsessively run the fence line or jump up and bounce against our windows when she was excited. I couldn’t treat it, yell it, command it, ignore it, or startle it out of her. Kizzie just wouldn’t stop, no matter what techniques I tried or classes I attended. Kizzie even ended up blind in one eye because I couldn’t get her to come when she took off after my horse and was kicked in the face. All those commands and blue ribbons didn’t work when real life distractions kicked in. They also didn’t take into account her strong cattle dog prey drive. But at that time, I had no insight into those things, which certainly weren’t prevalent ideas in the teachings I had access to. I knew something was missing, but it took years before I could put the pieces together.
And then came Izzie, my very first labradoodle. She came into my life and helped me understand the missing links I didn’t know. My Izzie, the dog who stole my heart, was such a great communicator with other dogs and became the catalyst for my examination and understanding of dogs on a different level.
What I’ve discovered on this journey of learning how to “speak dog” is that the art of dog training is knowing when you’ve done just enough, not enough, or more than enough.
If the perfect down/stay or militant-style compliance is your ultimate goal, then we have different goals. And if you’ve done all you know how to do—all the commands, praise, clickers, or treats—and your dog is still not where you want her to be on some issues, then you’ve discovered this truth that has become my driving, burning conviction that compels me in my relationships with dogs:
You can’t command calm, and you can’t compel acceptance!
If we are commanding our dog every millisecond of the day, our dogs aren’t thinking, growing, maturing, or deciding anything. You should be able to be with your dog, on or off a leash, out in society without compelling him into a command. You should not have to put a dog into a sit/down/stay position when a person approaches, just because he will jump on the person otherwise. I want my dog to be able to handle the excitement of an approaching person and choose to be polite and respectful. I’ll even give my dog the option of choosing what makes him most comfortable in that situation, whether sitting, standing, lying down, or moving around a bit. I let him be aware of his world and aware of me. He is not sitting, glued onto the concrete with eyes glued to mine. He is learning how to relax and choose calm.
At Aly’s Puppy Boot Camp (APBC), we expose our pups and dogs to other people of all ages, a variety of animals (dogs, cats, horses, goats, bunnies, chickens), and different sight sensations, smell sensations, texture sensations, noises, etc. Since life is often crazy, busy, noisy, smelly, and full of surprises, it is important that your pooch has the ability to maintain composure in the face of stimuli of all kinds.
How your pup or dog is exposed to different stimuli is critical; the key—they must be calmly exposed!
Once a dog can learn to think, make good choices, and handle all that life has to offer in a calm, safe, sane, and civilized way, then he is actually in the state of JUST BE. And truly, I believe that the greatest thing you can teach a dog is the art of JUST BE.
Four Rules of JUST BE
I have four general principles about how dogs should be acting and the choices they should be making when hanging out around me, no matter what we are doing together. I want my dog to relax and know that as long as he doesn’t break my four rules, it’s all good and he has some leeway about what he can and can’t do. These principles guide me in every facet of my working with a dog. The following should never happen:
- Dog, don’t make me spill my scalding hot coffee, not even one drop.
- Dog, don’t do anything to irritate me.
- Dog, don’t do anything to irritate anyone or anything around me.
- Dog, don’t do anything to piss me off.
If a dog breaks one of these four rules of JUST BE, I shut down the silliness, instantly and effectively. To shut down the silliness (meaning anything a dog is choosing, other than what I’m asking for), it is imperative that you can hold your leash and quickly and firmly move your dog in a counter-clockwise motion back around to your side, then put him into a sit. As you are beginning to move your dog around in that “stirring a cauldron” motion, you take a step back simultaneously to aid in your arms momentum to get your dog around and back to your side as quickly as possible. Then immediately release the pressure of the leash the millisecond their butt hits the ground. Now, just breathe. Release ALL pressure and tension on the leash. Don’t do anything. Wait. Let your dog decide if he is done choosing silliness. If he chooses to break a rule again, no problem, you just efficiently and quickly move that dog around to your side, get a sit, and release the pressure. Timing counts on this.
How many times will a dog test you on whether or not you will shut down the silliness?
It varies from dog to dog. Stick with this, and I promise, before very long your dog will decide that learning how to JUST BE is way more easy and gratifying than being silly.
That’s it, gang. It really is. Yes, sits are nice, heels are fabulous, long-distance downs are exceptional, tricks are fun, tasks are helpful; but the ability to JUST BE—well, it’s priceless.
Alyson Rodges is a dog trainer specializing in puppies and all things DOODLE. She loves people as much as their pooches and teaches the necessary skills for them both to enjoy a balanced life with each other. Aly’s approach is rooted in relationship, not commands alone. Aly trains multiple dogs at once in her own home, complete with teenagers, a bit of chaos, and a lot of real life. Aly’s Puppy Boot Camp is located on the gorgeous central coast of California near Pismo Beach. You can find out about Aly at www.alysonrodges.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org