By Carolyn Fuhrer
Sometimes it is good to take a step back and look at our role in the training process. It is important to remember that when you are training your dog in a performance sport, your dog is totally dependent your dog doesn't know what you are trying to teach. The dog has no idea of the rules or how any of the necessary skills need to be performed. Your dog is a reflection of you and your training.
In the beginning of teaching a skill, your dog should be open and trusting and wanting to engage with you. If not, you need to abandon your training plans and go back and work on creating a dog that wants to engage in learning. A defensive dog is not open to learning. To start, you must have a dog who wants to engage and who is not afraid to try a behavior to see if it works. Your dog should be confident that the right behavior will be praised and rewarded and the wrong behavior will either not be rewarded (try again) or guided into what is acceptable and then released.
Your dog should understand that effort in the right direction will be supported and may be rewarded. This encourages a dog to work and try to solve problems. Handlers who insist on the finished product without rewarding effort will soon lose the dog’s trust.
You, as a trainer, need to have a clear idea of what you are trying to teach and what are the progressive steps leading up to the skill you wish the dog to learn. As soon as you see confusion, you must be careful not to put too much pressure on the dog. When confused, some dogs will act out and bark, get the zoomies, or offer other known behaviors. Others will shut down and do nothing and others will try to leave. A good trainer should recognize confusion and help the dog be right, then praise and release, reward and play. Rethink what you were asking for and make the problem a little easier so the dog can be successful. When successful, praise, reward, release, and play and end on this success. The dog always needs to feel that it can trust you to make the outcome positive.
All training sessions should begin and end with play, and you should intersperse play throughout the session. Work should be fun, and problems should be fun to solve. If you don’t have a dog who willingly wants to play with you, it is time you spend some time enhancing that part of your relationship. Play should be fun for both of you and something the dog wants to initiate. Play is a great reward for work. Learning how to successfully play with your dog will teach you a great deal about your dog and yourself. A good trainer can always keep the dog’s interest without food. Try playing – it works!
Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 125 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 3 Champion Tracker titles. She is also an AKC Tracking Judge. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 30 years. You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.