Foundations – Learning to Pilot Your Dog

In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

Edward Hoagland

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

There’s nothing I hate more than people punishing their dogs.  There is no point to it. Punishment is merely a method of retribution, and that concept would never occur to a dog.  Dog’s mostly live in the here and now.  They don’t dwell on what wrong has been done to them, or the need for retaliation.  Dog’s will address a misstep, and then move on.

Some people believe that dogs are mute - they aren’t.  They just happen to communicate in a way we sometimes overlook:  body language.  However, dogs ask questions all the time!  Usually when your dog does something “bad”, it’s because you didn’t answer their question.  ”Can I have that piece of steak on the table?”  ”Is that mailman gonna eat us?” You MUST answer their question.  Now, here’s the easy part:  dogs are binary creatures.  They ask “yes” and “no” questions.  They don’t have another option.  “Fido, wanna go for a walk?”  YesyesyesYES!  “OK Fido, where do you want to go?”  Blank stare.  *crickets chirping*   Fido can’t answer a questions that isn’t yes or no.

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Answer their questions before really bad things happen – photo Twigg Studios

Communication is the key.  Reward the behaviors you want with praise, treat or just a gentle pat on the head.  Answer “no” to the unsavory behaviors want using their form of communication: body language.

So let’s put it all together.

There are only 3 things your dog needs: Piloting, Activity and Work. Or, as we like to call it, the PAW method. Notice I did not say, coddling, kissing and affection. To work with your dog’s behavior, give your dog what they need: Piloting, Activity and Work.  After you have given your dog what they need, then you can give them what you want: love, affection, praise,…namely, the good stuff.

Love and affection:  the only reason you should have a dog.  Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.   Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Love and affection: the only reason you should have a dog. Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

Piloting

Why do we call it Piloting?  Well, imagine you are on a plane.  It’s just you and the pilot, and all of a sudden the pilot suddenly becomes unconscious and you have to fly the plane.  How do you feel? Terrified? Anxious? Overwhelmed? That’s how your dog feels without a “pilot” of his own. The world is a scary place, and not everything makes sense to them.

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

So, let’s say the pilot wakes up while you’re still trying to fly the plane. What do you do? You’d probably let him fly the plane again right? Same thing with your pup. If you show that you can be Pilot, and that they can trust you, they will gladly hand over the controls and let you take care of them.

Piloting starts with confidence and body language. Make sure you are holding yourself in a tall and confident manner when answering questions for your dog. If you look confident, your dog will believe you are confident.  Women tend to sit and stand in an “S” shape. We tend to cross our arms and legs, which makes us seem less intimidating more nurturing. Men tend to sit and stand in a “T” shape. They take up lots of room and spread out. Make your body more of a “T” shape to help with your confident body language. Think of it as a uniform you are putting on when you need to Pilot your dog.  Make sure to stay calm as well. Adding tension and anger to the situation will not help. If you need to, step away for a few minutes. Then come back when you are calm and ready to interact with your dog.

Confident body language helps answer those questions your dog has been asking you constantly. Your pup is always asking you “yes” and “no” questions. Can I have this treat? Can I sit on the couch? Can I have some of your dinner? And more importantly: Is the person at the door a threat? Is that garbage can a threat? Is that other dog a threat?

The absence of “no” is “yes”. If you’re not answering your dog’s questions, then you are essentially telling them “yes”. (If you’ve ever raised teenagers, you know what I’m talking about.  “You never said I couldn’t!”)

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it yet, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him.  Imagine your dog is a lot taller, and you are trying to push him back from the treat using your stomach.  Remember, you are only answering one question, “Can I have the treat?”.  The body language you are using is telling him “no”.  As soon as he’s no longer engaged with the treat (i.e., staring at it or moving towards it),  remove your strong body language.  Take a step back.  He may ask the same question again immediately:  give him the same answer, (“no”) using your body language again, always removing your body language when he is no longer engaged with the treat, and adding it back when he does become engaged again.  Think of it as a giant game of Hot & Cold.

Now, if you want him to have the treat, just don’t say no. If you decide you want him to have it, you can just remove your body language from the situation.  You are no longer telling him “no”.   Remember, the absence of “no” is “yes”.

This is the same method you would use when answering the door. The question is “Is the person at the door a threat?”  Let your pup know that the answer is “no”, by making sure you are answering the door and not your dog. Pretend the door is the treat you had on the floor previously.  You are answering your dog’s question: “Need help with the door?”.  The answer is “no”.  Simply back them away from the door to give yourself some personal space (hint: you don’t need to back them up across the house, a few feet away from the door should do it!).  Now, nail them to that spot with your finger and your eyeballs (aka, the “Mom Look”), and back towards the door.  If they follow you, simply back them up again.  Wash, rinse, repeat, until you have a calmer situation to answer the door.

Calm can take a few tries.  Don't worry - you'll get there.

Calm can take a few tries. Don’t worry – you’ll get there.

The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.

Activity

The second thing that is needed is Activity. Dogs, like wolves, need activity daily. Walking on a daily basis gives them their sense of roaming that they would get if they were in a wolf pack. Each day a wolf pack hikes miles to and from a hunt. Your pup has this same instinct. It’s important that they get activity every day, and the amount they often require is a lot more than you think.

Some ways to enhance your Activity time is to invest in a backpack for your pup. You can find them on Amazon and it’s a great way to make your dog feel like they have a “job”. Don’t place any more than 3% of their body weight (at max! – start very small) in the pack and make sure it’s something that won’t hurt them.  For example, water bottles tend to slap them in the ribs with every step.  I prefer bags of beans, rice or coffee grounds.

Although you’ll be going the same distance, it will feel a little longer to your pup, which is always a good thing!

Fetch and playtime outside and at a dog park are great additional ways to get in activity. But the walk is so very important because it gives you an opportunity to work on your Piloting and it helps them with their roaming instinct, even if it is just in your neighborhood.

Work

The third part of the PAW Method is Work. Your pup needs mental work daily. Think of it this way, if you drive the same route home every day it becomes monotonous and easy for you. However, if there is a ton of traffic on that same route, you’re a lot more tired when you get home because there was a lot more mental work that went into that drive home. Your pup needs to feel that mentally tired. Otherwise, they’re bored. And boredom leads to finding things to keep them busy. And that leads to your grandmother’s quilt being torn up.

Stress is a good thing.  I want them to have a lot of stress in their life, because when you eliminate that stress, you get confidence.  Think of the confidence boost you get when you complete a project, or finish a crossword.  Benevolent stress = self-confidence.

An easy way to get some mental work in for your pup is to use an enrichment feeder. Such as a Kong Wobbler or Busy Buddy Twist N Feed. These feeders make your dog think about how to get the food out as opposed to just waiting for you to poor it out of a bag, which is dull, boring and EASY. By making them work for their food, it adds some mental work into their day and doesn’t add anytime to yours as you are going to feed them anyways.

Other things you can do for some mental work are playing “find it” games. To start, show your dog a treat, then put it down on the other end of the room in plain sight. When you release your dog repeat the phrase “find it” over and over until they get to the treat and then praise like crazy. Then move on to hiding the treat so it’s behind something, repeat “find it” and praise again. Then move on to using one of their favorite toys.  This is a good way to get some more mental work in.

Remember, your dog is family.  Sometimes family really sucks.

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

…but we can’t expect our relationships with our pets to be all sunshine and lollipops.  Sometimes we need to answer questions.  Sometimes it feels like they will never be housebroken (the dog, not the family).  But that’s why we Pilot our dogs.  That’s why we set them up for success with plenty of Activity and Work.  To make those moments less and less frequent.  And no, your dog isn’t perfect (mine sure aren’t), but we work together perfectly, understanding each others’ flaws, and not just loving each other in spite of them, but embracing them as part of who they are.

Keep calm and pilot on

 

Kerry Stack
Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Nailed It – The Art of (not) Cutting Your Dog’s Nails

Photo: Ruby Schmank @rubyschmank

Photo: Ruby Schmank
@rubyschmank

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.

- Lao Tzu

Nail cutting time.  My favorite. If given the choice between cutting Sparta’s nails and skipping voting on mid-terms this year…I’m going to still fucking vote!!! Are you crazy?! Register!

Seriously, though, there’s nothing I hate more than cutting Sparta’s nails.  Her nails are black.

 

 

I’ll admit, I was even terrified to cut my kids’ nails when they were little.  Unfortunately, I had a bad experience with my first dog, Darwin.  He had black nails as well, and the first time I tried to cut his nails, I cut a little too deeply.

 

It was awful, and it scarred me forever.  Looking back, I barely nicked him, and literally a drop of blood came out, but still, I was traumatized for life.  So for the rest of Darwin’s life, he went to get his nails trimmed at a groomer. Same thing with Orion and Sparta.  Now here’s the problem, though.  I have plenty of clients who would tell me that their dog was terrible about getting their nails trimmed, getting all Cujo on them.  They would ask while I was there if I could show them how to do it safely.  Sure thing!

I would Pilot  the dog, moving slowly, but confidently. I would take the clippers in my hand, continuing to maintain calm.  I take the dog’s paw in my hand, position the clippers on the dog’s nail…

“And then you cut”, I would say.  But here’s the rub. I never would actually cut the nail myself because I was terrified.  In my mind, my rationale was that my clients weren’t having problems cutting the nail, it was cutting the nail without being shredded by their dog that was the issue. I didn’t want to project my on neurosis onto them, so I faked it.  My clients would always take the clippers from me, Pilot their dogs as I had just shown them, and then actually cut the dog’s nails.  Voila!  Mission accomplished.

However, something about it didn’t sit right with me.  Yes, technically I solved their problem, and they were happily cutting away at their dog’s nails, but I felt awful that I couldn’t make that leap myself.  So a few months ago, I became determined to do it.

I grabbed my clippers and had Sparta in a down position on my floor.  I grabbed my clippers and headed towards her holding her paw out.

Yeah…she kinda sensed there was a slight problem.

 

Now here’s the thing: I have Piloted Sparta through some pretty terrible things.  For example, when she was 11 months old,she tore her ACL.  The examination by her vet was pretty rough and painful.  Her vet took her leg, and gently moved it, causing Sparta to jump up in pain, swing around, and pretty much ask if she could bite the vet.

My answer was “no”.

Remember, Sparta was in pain, and she was asking if she could hurt the vet to make him stop hurting her.  I obviously knew that the exam was indeed necessary to help her heal.  Yes, it hurt my heart to tell her that the vet was allowed to hurt her, but she accepted my answer.  Because I accepted my answer. I had complete faith and trust in my answer, and was able to convey that to her.  She calmed down, accepted the exam, and was set on the road to recovery.

But this was different.  I was still terrified of hurting her.  And she knew it.  I was acting differently.

We’ve secretly replaced your regular Pilot with Nervous, Shaking, Train-Wreck Pilot.  Le’ts see if Sparta notices.

Oh, yes, she figured it out right quickly, but I kept pushing on, ignoring the body language she was giving me. I had neglected to adhere to my own training rules:

1) Control yourself; and

2) Control the situation.

But I was plodding along like a dolt, ignoring the fact that Sparta was absolutely terrified.  Suddenly I realized what was happening.  Sparta was actually going to bite me, and I had been ignoring all of her body language that was absolutely screaming at me to stop what I was doing.  She wasn’t being willful nor disobedient; she was simply scared.  She was telling me with her body the equivalent of, “Don’t make me shoot, ’cause I will”.

I’ve written before about knowing your physical limitations when it comes to Piloting your dog, but mental limitations are a real thing, too.  And I suddenly realized that I was forcing a situation without having control of myself, let alone the situation.  That I had come *this close* to Sparta biting me, all because I kept pushing through a situation without taking the temperature of the situation.

So I stopped.  I put down Sparta’s paw and dropped the clippers.  Instead, we played a game.  The “I’m Not Clipping Your Nails” game, meaning she started to get positives for being calm (learn about positive reinforcement here).  It started with me taking Sparta’s paw, with the clippers on the ground. I would pinch her nail gently between my fingers, and then immediately give her a treat (frozen green beans – her favorite).  Pretty soon when I started to grab her paw, she would immediately look to the green beans, anticipating the Good Thing that was to come.

Next, I would take her paw in my hand, gently tap her paw with the clippers, and then give her a treat.  Sometimes I would just pick up the clippers, put them back down again, and give her a treat.  Soon, all things regarding the clipper were a Good Thing.  Finally, after a few days of this, I was ready.  I picked up her paw, did our usual game, but at this point both of us were condition to the clippers being No Big Deal.  I wasn’t a nervous wreck anymore. I was ready to cut.  Not trim her nail to where it should be, but just cut.  Such a small cut, that it really made no difference in the scheme of things except that I had just cut her nail.

And nobody died.  Nobody got bit.  Nobody was terrified.  And Sparta was looking immediately at the bowl of green beans, waiting for her treat for playing the I”m Not Cutting Your Nails Game. It had actually happened, though.  There was a little teeny-tiny piece of nail on the ground, proving we had done.  I didn’t stop there, but, more importantly, I didn’t push forward.  In other words, I continued our usual game of tapping her nails with my fingers, and generally messing around with her, but that day I only cut that tiny little piece of nail.  But I had done it.

Each day, we would do one more nail.  Sometimes two.  Just a little bit.  Now when I grab the nail trimmers, I usually feel comfortable enough to do all of her nails.  If I spend a little too long holding her paw while trying to determine how short I can cut the nail, I stop, put her paw down, give her a treat, and then resume the examination.  Things were going beautifully.

Until this past week when I realized that yes, I could cut her nails without drama now, but I was still being ineffectual.  They were growing faster than I could safely (in my mind) cut them.  I felt like a failure.  What was the point of this exercise, anyway?!

The point is twofold.

1) I re-learned how to control myself in a scary situation.  Piloting does indeed require a uniform.  Confidence. By making Sparta feel I had control, she felt safe enough to continue with The Scary Thing.  And the by-product was that the more I wore my Piloting uniform, the more confident I became.

 

 

2) I prepared Sparta for the groomer.  She will be getting her nails cut by a groomer, just like my other dogs, only this won’t be a new sensation for her. I’m sure she will look for a treat as her nails are getting done rather than for an escape route (or even worse, making her own escape route!).  But the difference now is that I know I can do it. Yes, I will be trusting a better Nail Pilot to cut her nails, but remember: Piloting is a contest,however, we all want who ever is best to win.  Mariah at Pet’s General is a much better Nail Pilot/Grooming Pilot than I could ever be. I will give it up to the professionals, but knowing full well that if it ever came to it, I could do it.

 

 

With a little more time…and green beans.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Nail Cutting Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio