When the Dog Trains the Trainer – What Dogs Have Taught Me

I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.

Galileo Galilei

photo-1504595403659-9088ce801e29

I’ve been training dogs for many years.  I’ve seen clients’ dogs as puppies, heard updates about them through the years, and been crushed at the news that they’ve crossed the rainbow bridge.  After all these years, I still learn something new about dogs after each session.  Sometimes it’s something small, such as a new way to decrease shedding.  Sometimes it’s something profound that will change the ways I train with the PAW Method. Because learning never ends.  I will never know everything there is to know about dog behavior.  The science behind it will never “prove” anything; it’s merely a hunt for more facts to back up working theories about dog behavior, and making adjustments accordingly.  Kinda like cooking:  you have your tried and true recipe for lasagna, but while out to eat one day you discover an ingredient added to the restaurant’s version.  You realize it will improve the flavor of your own recipe, so you add it to your ever-adapting version.  Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon.

Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works.

That goes for me personally, too.  We all know that dogs will change you; always for the better, if you let them.  Be willing to add their wonderful traits to your own.  Traits such as living in the moment.  Knowing gratitude.  And sometimes something so simple as how to breathe properly. But what about other things?  How has working with dogs and owners over the years changed me? The answer: profoundly.

I can let things go easier.  Nothing personal.  That’s a dog’s motto.  They don’t do anything to get back at you…they merely do things for themselves.  And that’s a major distinction.  How does that translate into life?  Well, that $&*! who cut me off on the highway wasn’t trying to ruin my day…they were trying to make theirs easier.  And that mind frame has made all the difference in my attitude.  Just let it go.

I’ve lost “stranger danger”.  Every session I walk into involves a stranger.  Sometimes up to three times a day I walk into a strange house and try to bond with the humans, gain the dog’s trust and “fix” whatever is going wrong between the dogs and the humans.  All within two hours.  There’s no room for awkwardness with the humans.  Thanks to the power of speech, I can bond with the humans pretty quickly and form a “pack” mentality of let’s solve this issue together pretty quickly.  The first couple of years it was rough (I’m actually rather introverted), but like anything else, the more you do it, the less you have to do it.

I feel ya.

I feel ya.

Laughter really IS the best medicine. The first order of business when trying to create pack?  Get the humans to laugh.  Or at least smile.  Okay, how about a mercy chuckle? Because nothing says “we’re friends here” like a show of teeth. From the humans anyway.  I need the humans to trust me, and formality isn’t the way to go.  Sometimes all it takes is one shared laugh, and suddenly I’m not a stranger to them anymore. A sense of humor is imperative when working with dogs, or humans, but especially when working with both.

See what I did there?

See what I did there?

I’m not afraid of being afraid anymore.  Notice I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid anymore.  Believe me, I’m plenty scared when I walk into a house with an aggressive 90lb dog who thinks I’m ugly and dresses funny. Fear is rational; it keeps us safe.  It keeps me from doing something stupid.  Being afraid of fear…now that’s a different story.  I have a nodding acquaintance with fear now. I’m not always thrilled when it shows up, but I know it’s there for a reason.  The thing is, fear is an accessory, not the entire wardrobe.  I am not defined by what I’m afraid of.  My fear is just another tool, be it my fear of getting bit, or my fear of driving over the Valley View Bridge. Fear isn’t good, nor is it bad.  It just is.

The Valley View Bridge.  Hang on, lady, we're going for a ride.

The Valley View Bridge. Hang on, lady, we’re going for a ride.

Potential pack has a much broader definition. Being cautious around things that are unfamiliar is normal and natural.  It’s what keeps us safe.  Fortunately for me, I’m constantly exposed to new people, thoughts, religions, and orientations.  I’ve worked with gays, straights, transgender and cross-dressers.  I’ve worked with old, young an in-between.  I’ve trained athletes and quadriplegics. The scary thing at first is that they’re different from me.  Then the most wonderful, impressive thing at the end is how they’re different than me.  While I accept that being introduced into a new situation is scary, I’m lucky to have been exposed to yet another wonderful variation on a familiar theme: human. And guess what?  We’re all mad, crazy, fun, annoying, amazing beings.

Yes, Sally, even you.

Yes, Sally, even you.

I don’t glory in being right, because, well…I’m not always write right. I’ll never forget a training session about 5 years ago.  A family set up a date and time over email.  I show up, and they’re aren’t ready, and they didn’t expect me, and were actually on their way out.  I was furious.  I had re-arranged my schedule to make sure I could be at their house, and had, as a courtesy, traveled outside my normal area.  However, even though I was in the right, I managed to maintain calmness and said I would call to reschedule. I got home, reviewed their email so I could really lay it on thick about how wrong they were, when I realized: I was wrong. I showed up on the wrong day.  I was the one who made the mistake.  To top it all off, they were exceptionally polite and well mannered about my mistake.  I vowed never again to take the “rub their noses in it” attitude in the case of an honest mistake.

Writing this post makes me realize how working with dogs and people has enriched my life.  My life would have been completely different without having had these opportunities.  So to the furballs, wriggle-butts and rope-toy-tuggers (uh, that’s you, canines).  Thank you.  And to you fellow sapiens, I couldn’t have done it without you, either.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Stop Hammer Time: The Problem With Dominance Focused Training

From time to time, we here at Darwin Dogs love to have the thoughts and ideas of others expressed here through guest blog posts.  Today is a fellow trainer, Chris Ramsay, owner of Shaker Hound Academy. Today he shares his thoughts on dominance training.

Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will.
-Yoda

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

So, what kind of issues are you having with your dog?

Well, he thinks he’s alpha. And I need to be alpha.

(Shit. I have some work to do.But not with the dog, with the owner.)

Oh…OK. We’ll circle back to that. What kind of expectations do you have for you and your dog?

Well, he should do what I want, when I want. Immediately. No questions asked. That’s it. And right now he doesn’t. He bolts out the door. Pulls me on the walk. Takes food off the counter. Chews my shoes. Barks at the mail carrier. Jumps on my friends. It’s crazy. No matter how much I yell at him and punish him, he still does it.

So, he makes a bad decision and you ‘bring out the hammer’?

Hell yeah! He shouldn’t be doing any of that!  Am I right?

Yes. You are right. In that he shouldn’t be doing any of that. But, before he makes a bad decision, he’s going to tell you that he’s THINKING about making a bad decision. And *that’s* where you need to intervene to stop the undesired behavior.

You’re saying I need to be able to tell what my dog is thinking?

Yep.

And predict what he’s going to do?

Yep. Or minimum, that he’s in the decision making process.

How the hell do I do that?

You pay attention. And put more tools in your toolbox. Besides that big hammer of yours.

Let’s say you are having a great walk with your dogs. Walking around the neighborhood. They’re walking, sniffing, doing their business like a good dogs. Birds are chirping. Mrs. McGillicutty waves hello from her porch.And then suddenly, they turn off the sidewalk. And stop.Their bodies go stiff. They’re staring into a neighbor’s yard. Stop blinking. There is a squirrel at the base of a tree. They’re transfixed. For a brief period, you could put coffee cups (filled to the top) on their heads, and it wouldn’t spill. Now…what would you say they’re thinking?

We are tired. We need a rest.

No.

We really need to get home to finish our taxes.

No.

If we practiced our 3-point shots more, we could really do some damage from downtown.

Really?

Obviously, they’re telling you they are thinking about chasing that squirrel. Which is normal for dogs as they have millions of years of ancestors as excellent predators. “Apex predators” to be exact. But if you do nothing, if you say nothing, in the dog world, that’s approval. Give them approval, and they’ll run and yank the arm out of your socket every time.My friend and fellow trainer Kerry Stack of Darwin Dogs has a great explanation of this: dogs will constantly ask you questions during daily life. And if you don’t “Pilot” them, answer them AT THE TIME THEY ARE ASKING, they will provide their own answer. Most often, this is not the answer that you want.Military combat professionals have an term for this process: The OODA Loop…Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. And, believe it or not, it applies to dogs just as it does to humans. It’s a repeating loop that animals constantly go through when evaluating their world, especially when there is a stimulus involved. It’s worth looking up.
Print
For some dogs, this OODA Loop is big and elongated. They see something, keep meandering or don’t even break stride, decide that they don’t want to interact with it, the owner does nothing, and then the dog acts by going about their business. Rarely do I get calls from these owners.Other dogs, lots and lots of others, have a very tight OODA Loop. They see something (observe), and then face the thing they are focusing on (orient) quickly. The owner does nothing. The “decide” and “act” portions will come fast and furious. By the time the dogs hits the “act” portion of the loop, the owner is waaaaay behind the curve. And in reactive mode. I get plenty of calls from these owners.
Intervene at the “observe” or “orient” portions, and you are in proactive mode. And much more likely to have an impact on their behavior. In this immediate instance, and future ones.Want to see humans in the midst of an OODA Loop? Watch the Olympics, down hill skiing. Or boxing. Want to see a crazy tight OODA Loop? Watch table tennis. It’s so fast, you almost have to see it in slow motion to witness the speed around the Loop.Some dog trainers will just focus on bringing out the hammer on the act portion. Mess up? BOOM! You get the hammer! Do it again. I dare you. HAMMER! Again? BIGGER HAMMER!
In my opinion, good trainers will step in at the observe and orient portions in several proactive ways. And with various techniques (using multiple tools in their toolbox) can change the dog’s experience and thought processes to help them make good decisions BEFORE they get too far around the Loop. If you want to put numbers on it to make it easier,: 

ooda-loop-dogs-01-1000

“Observe” would be a 1-2
“Orient”, 3-5
“Decide,” 6-8
“Act”, 9-10

 

One of the difficult things that owners have a hard time grasping is that between 1 and 5, the dog is typically quiet and usually still. They may vocalize at 6, but sometimes not. At 8, the dog is already on the edge to implementing their decision. Whether you like their decision or not. So if the owner is not paying attention, the dog is telling them that they are on their way around the Loop. Remember, no action by the owner is approval. Wait for them to bark and/or lunge and you have missed your opportunity.Being “alpha” is about dominance. Hammer wielding dominance. And, as it turns out, the creator of the term says not to use it any more because it doesn’t apply. Skeptical? Well, check out David Mech for yourself. He’s the guy who invented the term. And the #1 expert on wolves in the United States.
http://www.davemech.org/news.html

 

My advice? Picture yourself as a coach. A leader. An answerer of questions. Not as some pissed off warden with prisoners that need to obey, or else. Humans and dogs should act as a team. With a similar purpose. Aligned agenda. Constantly communicating. Working together towards a common goal. Is there a hierarchy in place? Yes. But not out of dominance. Or fear of the hammer.Pay attention. Guide them. And it will pay off in spades.

 maple-snickers-track-1000
Chris Ramsay, K-9 Specialist at Shaker Hound Academy, has been working with problem dogs (and their problem owners) since 2005. He is a “balanced trainer”, and has helped hundreds of owners achieve a more peaceful and productive relationship with their furry friends. He is based in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and services Cleveland’s east side neighborhoods.