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Need More Training? Get the Most Out of Life

A dog barks at a startled cat sitting in a window. Text: Need More Training? Get the Most Out of Life

There are many things (ideally) that make professional dog trainers more successful and faster at changing dogs’ habits than civilians (that’s what I tend to call non-dog trainers, I hope it isn’t offensive). One is that we are acutely aware of, and prepared to capitalize on, the myriad of tiny training opportunities that life spontaneously presents.

For example—my husband, Stephen, and I were out walking our two dogs last night. (Just to be clear, I am not using this post as an opportunity to passive-aggressively call out my husband. It was actually his idea for me to write it, and he has read and approved it for public consumption.) Back to the walk...

We had been away from our dogs for a month, and they had been away from the bustle of our neighborhood for several weeks. So I was primarily focused on the dog who’s leash I was holding, our little Hoota, who often has many, many big feelings that can be incited by the stimulation of a walk. 

But before we even made it out of our alley, a dog in a yard ran up and started barking at Ginny through a gate about 4 feet directly to her right. 

Stephen’s instinct was to tighten the leash. Ginny, resisting coercion, leaned into that tightness to pull towards the barking dog. I was 20 feet behind them, saw Ginny’s fixation and called her. She changed focus immediately and dragged my husband over to me because Ginny and I have done tons of heavily rewarded recalls in our alley. I rewarded her and gave Stephen a hunk of crocodile jerky for his empty pockets.

That little exchange, from the time the dog started barking to the time I called Ginny’s name, took 3-4 seconds. It would have been more like 1-2 seconds had I been holding her leash instead of focusing on her sister.

Why was I able to respond so quickly and proactively whereas Stephen reacted to an already tense situation with more tension? The answer is simple and does not require you to be a professional dog trainer—it’s just practice. As much as your dog needs training, so do you.

There aren’t people who intuitively and/or magically know how to respond in stressful situations and those who don’t. There are only those who have learned and those who haven’t—though even that isn’t exactly true because any response we have is largely a learned response. The questions you want to ask are: Is your response working for you and your dog? And would you like the ability to respond differently?

To be fair, there are a bunch of worse responses that Stephen could have had in that situation—drop the leash, yank the leash, yell, etc. So at least those things didn’t happen. But what Stephen didn’t have on hand was a habitual, functional reaction. In this particular scenario, the dog had a well-trained response on hand, the human did not.

To Stephen’s credit, he immediately recognized that it had been a long time since he’d practiced recalls with Ginny, and he used the croc jerky to get right on that as we continued our walk. Hoota and I were taking our time, making some circles, doing some sniffing, and when we finally caught up to Stephen and Ginny, I found them doing recalls off a kitty behind a screen in a basement-level window. 

Now kitties in windows are one of Ginny’s most favorite things in the whole world. She has been known, in the past, to slam full force into a kitty window scaring not only the cat, but all the humans inside. (I know because I heard them all scream.) And not only was this a kitty in a window, this kitty was behind a screen only—no glass. (I actually walked past that window this morning and saw that where Ginny had “succeeded” another dog had “failed” because the screen was completely mangled.)

Stephen and Ginny were doing a pretty good job with training. The proximity and surprise made for a situation I’d say was a little bit above their pay grade as a team, but they got through it without too much need for the leash and without Ginny landing in someone’s living room.

It was an obvious training scenario, but it was also not ideal. This is another skill set professional trainers and skilled owners have developed though practice—triaging pathways for likelihood of success and failure.

Ideally, Ginny would have had more distance from the kitty to be able to get in a slew of successful reps without needing any restriction from the leash. They could have done some successful reps at a distance and then either turned around or crossed the street rather than pushing to actually pass by the window. Or Stephen could have dramatically increased his rate of reinforcement to near continuous as they passed the kitty (though I don’t think he had the supply for that). Regardless of the tweaks that could have maximized that opportunity, the ideal follow-up training scenario came later in the walk and that’s the one that Stephen missed. 

On another block going another direction we came across another window. This one had a metal fence about 2 feet in front of it so Ginny couldn’t push her nose to the glass, and there was something white sitting on the window sill. Something that Ginny immediately assumed was a kitty.

It was actually just a slim vase that was wider at the bottom and narrowed at the top (kind of like a sitting kitty). Ginny was already right next to the fence when she saw it, so all she did was freeze and stare. Stephen hit the end of the leash, turned to see what she was doing, laughed and said, “it’s just a vase, Ginny,” and gave the leash a little tug to try get her moving again. Again the leash tension made her more committed to her fixation. If his plan was to use the leash to deal with this situation, he was going to have to drag her.

And that’s where they were when I came upon them. I immediately went into training mode and within a few seconds Ginny was looking at the vase on cue, and then automatically looking back to me to earn a reward. Now that I had the behavior I wanted, I spent some more seconds rewarding successful repetitions of that exact thing.

It only took about 10-15 seconds, though I will be the first to admit that Ginny’s training history has everything to do with that. When we first got her, walks with Ginny were back-breaking, near traumatizing affairs. Then we spent years following bad advise that made things worse before I finally found ways to truly make things better (and became a professional dog trainer in the process.)

When I teach reactive dog classes, I start this process of teaching dogs to automatically look back to their handler in response to something they see with a neutral object, one that holds no particular charge or intensity for its viewers. The dogs in these classes have big, big feelings when they see other dogs, so I don’t try and teach them the behavior with another dog. I start with something way easier so that they have full capacity to learn. Then, once they have some repetition to rely on, we gradually bring the situations closer and closer to real life.

Not that the white vase was a neutral object for Ginny. Her expectations (primed by having just seen an actual white kitty in a window) imbued it with kitty-level intensity, which is what made it the perfect training opportunity. Ginny thought she was staring at a kitty, and had her corresponding level of intensity, but that vase wasn’t going to growl or hiss or twitch its tail or fuzz up and run away or otherwise surprise both of us by escalating the situation. For her (for us) it was a spontaneous sweet spot for practice. Despite the intensity, Ginny’s long, deep history of seeing stuff and looking to me to get a reward made it super easy to interrupt her fixation and get her back attending to me. 

That made the immediate situation easier for everyone involved, but not that’s not all it did. Instead of dragging Ginny away from a vase she thought was a kitty, we added even more successful repetitions to her long, deep history, making it even more likely that she’ll respond to the next similar situation in a way that makes me happy.

So getting Ginny to the 15 second real-life training place took time and investment. Ginny was what we trainers like to call a “project dog”—a dog that is not easy, a dog that has a long way to go in order to adapt to the human-centered life that has been thrust upon them. She’s still is a project dog, her training will never stop. (Though I would argue that as long as you have things you want your dog to do in the presence of other opportunities they find exciting, the training never stops for any dog.)

The other great thing about having a training history is that it tells you exactly the best place to train next. When I walked Ginny this morning, I knew that kitty window would provide an awesome training opportunity, even if there was no kitty in it (especially if there was no kitty in it, actually). I also know the windows where she’s seen kitties in the past—those make for great distractions for recall practice. Seeing certain types of dogs is also more intense for her and when we pass those dogs we train. 

The list of our past conflicts—meaning the places and times when she hasn’t behaved according to my preferences—tells me exactly what I want to train. I have to admit, that list is longer than I would like since we spent so many years flailing. Had I known then what I know now, the list would have remained short and gotten trained relatively quickly. But at the end of the day that doesn’t matter—it is the list we have now.

So if you also have a project dog, you will likely have to tone life down, at least for a while, to find those sweet spots where the training is really productive. But that doesn’t have to take hours a day, it just takes smart planning. 

You may have to walk at times when fewer dogs are out, or drive to quieter locations to train. If you loose your dog’s attention as soon as you get out the door, then start training attention before going out the door. If they fixate on dogs who are 50 feet away, make sure you’re training every time you see a dog at 75 feet.

And if you’re not sure how to do those things, that’s where a good professional comes in. You hire a dog trainer to leverage all of their research and practice, all of their ability to triage and to identify the next best steps for you and your dog. A good professional will lay out your pathway to success—a realistic (for your life) pathway that will develop  the skills skills needed by both you and your dog.

The old adage I grew up with is “Practice Makes Perfect,” but while studying guitar as an adult, one of my teachers edited/corrected the statement—“Practice Makes Permanent.” 

Training is practice. It makes the things we want more and more permanent.

Not training is also practice. It makes what already is more and more permanent.

What are you practicing with your dog?

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