How to Train a Dog the Feldenkrais Way
I love it when worlds overlap. At the beginning of my Feldenkrais practitioner training, our teacher commented on a phenomena he sees repeatedly over the course of training after training: “Students become more and more themselves.” Now I am poised to enter my fourth and final year having discovered that dog training was a personal potential, and field of concurrent study, waiting to emerge.
That I might find myself studying dogs is not a particularly earth-shattering revelation. My family has had dogs since before I was born, and I grew up training and showing horses with our canine companions ever present on the sidelines. Five years ago, my husband and I unexpectedly adopted a wily brindle with a sorted past and I’ve been on a canine-propelled learning curve ever since.
The unexpected part was that, after a dedicated year of researching approaches to dog training, I found myself studying principles of the Feldenkrais Method in an entirely different context. I had sorted through teachers, trusted my curiosity, and gracefully stumbled into learning how to train dogs the Feldenkrais way.
Step 1 - Successively Approximate The process of building slowly from initiation forward can be applied to any behavior you’d like your dog to perform. Sitting begins with bending the back legs; bowing begins with bending the front legs; shaking hands begins with a weight shift. Find the place where your dog is already heading towards the behavior you want, reinforce them, and build towards the end goal from there. In other words—start with success.
From what I’ve seen in working with both people and dogs, is that the fastest way to slow down progress and suppress motivation is to expect too much too soon. So make it your goal to find the place where you dog can’t help but succeed, and expand their behavior from there.
Step 2 - Leverage Pleasure In the Feldenkrais method, teachers often emphasize or evoke the inherent desire to move towards pleasure. All of us, your dog included have a preference for following what feels good. You can leverage this by finding what your dog loves and using it in your training to both limit what you ask, and reward what you want, of your dog.
Pleasure could be the chase of a fast-moving ball, the competitive struggle of a game of tug, a supply of tasty treated, or all of the above and more. Pleasure could be staying at least 50 feet away from scary noises or other dogs. Every dog is different, and your job is to find what makes your dog’s heart soar and integrate it thoroughly into your training process.
Step 3 - Break Behavior Down, then Layer it Up Sometimes a behavior is too complex, or too important, to simply approximate. Take the recall—arguably the most important behavior for your human-canine team to perfect. A relatively simple behavior, a recall is complex to train because of the motivation required to make it reliable. For your dog to turn away from food and friends and furry tails disappearing under bushes, they must be excessively inspired to come when you call. You are least likely to envelop, or install, inhibitions into your dog’s recall if you break the behavior down and train it's components individually.
How do you want your recall to start? With great enthusiasm! Begin by calling your dog to come get, or do, something you know they love. How do you want your recall to end? With your dog by your side? Standing between your legs? Sitting close in front so you can effortlessly loop a finger through their collar? Any of these are great options that you can train apart from your beginning recall, and then add on as you approach refinement.
When do you want your dog to recall? Every time you call! So practice your recalls with little, medium, big, and super big distractions. Practice calling your dog away from food, people, and all things fuzzy. Practice from ever expanding distances. Practice in quiet spaces and noisy places. Any scenario imaginable where you want your dog come running on cue—set it up as a training scenario. The layering of all the different variations will strengthen your recall in every situation.
Step 4 - Use Constraint Old habits die hard, or so the saying goes. While this may be true in general, observed experience and a Feldenkrais perspective suggest a more complete statement: Old habits die hard as long as you keep using them. (And new habits grow quickly when given the chance.) In behaviorism, the death of an old habit is called ‘extinction’. Extinction occurs when a conditioned (automatic) response stops being reinforced. Sometimes the best way to stop reinforcing a behavior is to block it from occurring by adding constraint.
There are many ways to apply this principle to your dog training. Say, for example, your dog jumps on people and you’d prefer they didn't. One approach would be to block them from jumping to make contact by using a physical barrier or by standing on the leash so that it’s loose for sitting, but tight for jumping. Then have a helper make contact with your dog as long as all four paws are on the floor, and break contact when they jump.
Or you can utilize distance as a constraint. With your dog on leash beside you, ask the helper to move towards you as long as your dog remains calm, and stop or move away when excitement starts to build.
Step 5 - Don't Underestimate the Power of the Pause If there’s one thing any student of Feldenkrais, professional or personal, learns to appreciate, it’s the power of the pause. Be it for a few seconds or a few days, the pause offers a system reset that lets us start fresh and enter each new moment as the unique experience it is. The pause is also a place where learning happens, where all you’ve taken in is consolidated, pruned, and organized to be more readily at your disposal when you next reach to employ it.
Incorporate pauses into your training schedule in whatever ways prove useful. Try training in short sessions with long breaks in between. Experiment with intense focus on one behavior, switching to another, and then coming back to the first. Or just pause within a session for a good and thorough belly rub before returning to the task at hand.
Finally - Hold on to (or Recapture) Your Spirit of Play!
I remember my very first Awareness through Movement lesson. It culminated in the group of us holding our feet while rolling across our backs in attempts to weeble-wobble effortlessly up to sitting. It also incited us to raucous laughter. We were having fun, delighting in our successes and failures alike. Any seriousness of achievement was thoroughly dissolved, and the joy of the moment made our group social and cohesive.
As a student of dog training, the most common comment I hear from owners when things don’t go their way is that the dog is being stubborn. Supposedly they understand what to do, but are willfully choosing to disobey. But blame is the opposite of play—it takes the fun out of everything. Fortunately, evoking a spirit of play is the perfect antidote to blame. You can use play as a reward, pause, or motivator to keep the energy of your training process high. Instead of blaming your dog for not thinking and prioritizing like you do, put on your creativity cap on and embrace the challenge with levity and humor.
When you use play to invent solutions that are mutually satisfying, instead of trying to cram another living creature into your idea of how they should be, you will discover the apporach that allows your human-canine team to gather as much curiosity, joy and wonder as possible, while learning a thing or two (or a hundred) along the way.
Source images for photo collage from Unsplash, credit to: Marcus Benedix, Patrick Hendry, Ryan Searle, and Jan Gottweiss; additional image credits to Juan L. Cruz and Rosalie O’Connor (© 2005-2007, used with permission of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America).
Credit for photo of Ginny jumping goes to Juan L. Cruz.