Morrissey: In dog training, sometimes less is more
May 15, 2013
Charlie rests on the left end of the couch.
Before he came into our lives, Charlie was in several homes, bouncing down the rocky road of a rescue dog. His last home was well meaning. They wanted to do nose work and agility with this young Border Collie, which sounded great. Problem was, they did not just want to enjoy agility with their new dog, they wanted a champion agility dog, and they did not understand Charlie’s temperament was not suited for that. They put enormous stress and expectations on him to perform. In four months Charlie was returned to the rescue group. He was compulsively spinning, air snapping and showing other symptoms of severe stress. And when Charlie was stressed, he used his teeth on whatever or whomever happened to be near him at the moment.
When Charlie came to live with us, I asked nothing of him other than basic manners, as well as not to bite me or my other dogs. Over time (years) he has learned to trust me. It is a hard earned and sweet victory. While it would seem I did not do any training at all with this dog, I did it everyday. It required self-restraint, letting Charlie come to me on his own terms and waiting him out without loosing my patience. While I would run my other dogs through an agility course, I never asked Charlie to do so. Believe me, asking a dog trainer not to “train” the dog can be a big challenge!
There are many times in training our dogs where less is more:
1. Remove social pressure. Like people, many dogs are introverts by nature and do not want to be social butterflies. They like their space. They need time. They like a calm, quiet routine. They do not want to have a bunch of unknown strangers grabbing their heads. They do not want to go to the dog park. They just want to be with their human, enjoy a hike or other adventure, and chill out.
2. Keep initial greetings short and sweet. If two unfamiliar dogs look relaxed in the presence of the other and they are not pulling towards each other, let them meet in a controlled manner and with leashes loose. Let them have a quick nose and tail sniff then move on. If dogs remain in close proximity for too long at that first greeting, trouble can arise. Instead, let them briefly greet and then walk in parallel to one another on neutral territory. If one or both dogs are too excited and pulling toward each other, wait until both dogs are calm before letting them greet.
3. When asking your dog to do a task, say it once. If you repeat cues too often your dog will learn to tune you out. This includes calling their name to get their attention. If they do not respond to their name at first, make a different noise or move away from them saying, “lets go over here!”
4. Understand threshold. This is one of the most important concepts in working with animals and worthy of its own article (coming soon!). Briefly, threshold is the point at which an animal “looses it.” They may become over excited or extremely fearful and start lunging and barking out of control. Most owners report that their dogs are not listening to them at this stage. Absolutely correct! Their dogs cannot listen or pay attention because they are overwhelmed and over their threshold. Attempting to train a dog when they are over threshold is futile. If a dog is over threshold, it is essential to remove them to a place where they are further away from the trigger and can calm to the point of being able to give you their attention.
Charlie’s stress threshold is still higher than most other dogs. When there is too much noise or chaos around him, he goes to his quiet spot in the house where he feels safe. But nights when all is quiet, the rain falls outside, the fire warms us and we are reading a book on the couch, Charlie comes down. He joins us on the couch and curls up on the left end. He lets me sit by him now, and as I reach to gently pet him, his tail wags, he leans into my hand and gives a contented sigh.
Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a member of Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Dog Training team.
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