By Laura McGaughey, CPDT-KA
There are lots of components that go into successful training: your timing, the delivery of the reward, having the right motivation for the dog, managing your environment for success, and many more. Each of these in and of itself is worthy of a blog post, but today I’m going to talk about one of the cornerstones and how I perceive it: the ability to truly connect with your dog.
What is a connection and how do you know you have it? For me, it’s when my dogs look happily at me, come to me without me even asking, and look to me as though I have their back. By and large, my dogs find it extremely rewarding just being around me. I notice the good behaviors they give me and reward them. I talk to them and look at them in a loving manner. I do things with them they enjoy, and I enjoy as well, sharing that mutual enjoyment.
Here are my tips for building a good, solid connection with your dog:
- Empathize with your dog. We are so caught up in what the dog SHOULD do, or DOES know, that when they don’t do what we’ve prompted from them, we get frustrated. We repeat ourselves: “Django, sit………sit………..SIT!” Our voices and actions become white noise to our dog, and we go down the road of being upset, which can lead to unnecessary and unpleasant punishment, deteriorating our relationship. Remember there may be reasons why your dog isn’t doing what you think he should be doing—and knows how to do. Sometimes they actually haven’t been taught to understand what we’re asking in all situations so we need to retrain at easier criteria. Perhaps your dog didn’t hear you, or is thinking about it and just needs a moment more than what we will give. Sometimes they may be too afraid, or the pavement is too hot or cold, or they may be experiencing some type of pain or discomfort. The dog is refusing for a reason, not out of stubbornness. The more you can realize where the holes are with your training, or what he may be experiencing at the moment by contemplating his point of view, the less frustration you can experience and the more trust you will be able to build with your dog overall.
- Reward all the check-ins! One of the simplest things you can do, the instant you get your new puppy or dog, is reward him EVERY TIME he looks at you, in as many places you can, and with as many distractions, as possible, of his own accord. We call these “check-ins,” and your dog will be most successful if you do this first in less distracting environments, then in increasingly more distracting areas and scenarios. You can’t overdo it in the beginning, especially as the surroundings change. The more you do this, the more they will learn you are the most amazing thing in their world! In less distracting situations you can use their regular food ration and simple training treats, but in more distracting environments (exciting to be in the park on a weekend!), you will have much better success if you have little bits of hot dogs, chicken or cheese—any real food that your dog doesn’t normally get but will absolutely love. Everything starts with looking at you—a sit, a down, a loose leash walk—so if you start by rewarding simple check-ins, you will have a strong foundation for even better manners and relaxed behavior.
- Acknowledge when they get it right. Often! It’s all too easy to ignore the good kid, right? The naughty one in the back always gets called out, gets called up to the front, gets all the attention. This usually doesn’t work well overall because the naughtiness is more rewarding than being good and quiet! It’s a simple analogy but it helps us realize that there are many times when our dogs are being good and we aren’t acknowledging it (as well as how much we end up reinforcing “bad” behavior instead). Make a point to have treats at hand more often than not to reward good behaviors when they’re offered, at spontaneous times, and see the awesome results of paying attention to the good kid—he repeats all that awesome stuff, more and more. Even if I don’t have a treat at the time, I want to tell my dogs they’re being good, or give some attention to them in the form of affection or play, so they know I appreciate their awesomeness when it happens.
- Have full engagement with your dog. I am a huge advocate for food in training, and to also continue maintaining behaviors you’ve already built, but it’s also important to use other reinforcing items to engage your dog in myriad ways to build your relationship together. Often when I’m walking a dog I love to praise them as they’re doing well in addition to treating them to stay by my side, and to tell them how awesome they are before releasing them for a sniff break. By engaging them a bit more than just being stoic or relying on the treats alone, and allowing them freedom to do what they want, I think most dogs are more eager to actually be present with me on the walk. It’s not like I have to talk or pet them the entire time, but I do enough to motivate the dog and add even more fun to what we’re doing, instead of staring at my cell phone or talking on a Bluetooth. You can also engage in playing with the dog with a toy, or a game you both enjoy as well. If I’m enthusiastic, and genuine, they will pick up on this and know that we’re a team together—we work hard but we also play hard!
These strategies build a reinforcement history with the dog—I am always oriented toward helping the dog find the right path and rewarding for what I like most. The stronger your history, the better your success at having a dog that will be happy to do what you like—it’s fun for the dog, and it helps build a real connection with them. It builds a solid relationship!
Laura McGaughey, CPDT-KA, resides in Englewood and has a wealth of experience in working with problem behaviors: fearful, reactive, anxious and aggressive dogs. She now works as a service dog trainer with Freedom Service Dogs, and has two dogs: a 60-lb fluffy butt shelter mutt and 10-lb Chihuahua.