Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.
I hate the “wait” command that some people teach their dogs. In a world full of useless commands, this has to be the most useless. I see it play out all the time while I’m training. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps some background is necessary. Let’s set this story up properly, perhaps using the typical training session as an example. So I present to you, Wait For It, an original play written by Kerry Stack.
Kerry Stack: Dog Trainer Beautiful, graceful, always well-dressed with a witty comment on the tip of her tongue (hey, it’s my play….I can be whomever I want to in it).
Sophie: Dog Owner. Super-wonderful owner, but having some issues with her dog knocking people over at the door, as well as some mild dog reactivity.
Ajax: Handsome mix roughly a year old. Big boy, weighing in at roughly 100 lbs. Typical No No Bad Dog.
ACT I, Scene I
Kerry has been called to meet with and work with Ajax. Upon meeting Ajax, he immediately rushes up to Kerry, jumping on her before she’s even through the entranceway. Kerry, knowing full well she can’t Pilot a dog who doesn’t know her yet, simply pushes him off of her, stands up straight, and allows the dog to smell her until he’s a bit more comfortable with her presence. Now they are ready to begin the training session.
Kerry begins to describe the things a dog needs: Piloting, Activity and Work, stressing the importance of each. They discuss Activity, and various ways to make sure Ajax is getting enough (hint: it doesn’t have to be walking non-stop), Kerry also addresses issues with Ajax being bored, meaning he needs more Work. Now they are ready to tackle the big problem: Piloting.
Kerry: Piloting is the big issue you are having here. The reason I refer to it as Piloting is this – imagine you are on an airplane, and there’s only one Pilot. Mid-flight the Pilot dies. What are you going to do?
Sophie: Panic? I don’t know…try to fly the plane!
Kerry: Exactly. And how do you feel flying that plane? Nervous, excited, desperate, overwhelmed and overstimulated. All because you’ve been put in charge of a crisis situation that you don’t understand and you can’t control. Who does that sound like? Ajax. Each and every time someone rings your doorbell, that’s a potential crisis situation for Ajax. Is it a threat? Is it a friend? By the time he gets to the door, he’s so worked up over the situation he literally can’t control himself, nor the situation.
Sophie: So how do I handle it, and let him know it’s not a threat? That I can answer the door without his help?
Kerry: By answering his questions. Dogs have a lot of questions. Most of them are pretty stupid…”Can I eat this?” ”Can I eat this after the cat ate it?” Regardless of how stupid you think the questions are, you still have to answer them. And some of his questions are pretty important. ”Is the person at the door a threat?” ”Do you need help?” Those questions need to be answered, and in a way that Ajax understands. Dogs are not based upon vocality or language. Dog’s first language is body language. They have no second language. Sure, you can spoon-feed them a few words in English….sit, come, etc., but the most precise way to communicate with your dog is with their native language. So we’re going to respect them enough to use their language in their presence: body language.
Dogs happen to be binary creatures, though. This means that every question they ever ask you will be a “yes” “no” question, and every answer you give them will be a “yes” or “no”. It’s like a giant game of “Hot or Cold”. The questions Ajax asks (“Do you need me to answer the door?”) are answered with a “no”. Just remember, Ajax isn’t bad, he’s merely asking a question, and the answer happens to be “no”. So let’s practice the body language involved first.
I’m going to take these treats in my hand, put them on the floor, and tell Ajax (using body language) that he’s not allowed to have them. What do you think Ajax is going to do?
Sophie: Well, we have been working on the “wait” command. He’s not allowed to have his food, any treats, etc., until we release him from that command.
Kerry: But remember, I’m not telling him “wait”, I’m telling him “no”. There’s a huge difference.
(Kerry puts the food on the floor, and answers Ajax’s question, “Can I have the treat?” by using body language. Ajax sits on the floor and looks to Kerry to see what to do next)
Kerry: So he’s no longer engaged with the food. Here’s my question: when does he get the treat?
Sophie: When he’s good?
Kerry: My answer is “never”. This isn’t a trick. I’m not teaching him “wait” and you can have what you want. The problem is that you’re teaching him “wait”, which then ends with his getting whatever it is he wants. Yes, he has to be a little patient, but he always gets what he wants in the end. So when you’re trying to tell him “wait” at the door, what you really mean is “no”. As in never. You never need his help at the door. Unfortunately, up until now, he’s never been taught to understand that some things are “no”…he’s been learning to wait to get what he wants. But what if that was a baby wrapped in bacon on the floor? If he’s polite and patiently waited for a few moments, does he then get the baby? Or even better, have you ever tipped a waitress for not stealing your purse? No, because that’s yours. You don’t reward someone for not taking what’s yours. The same concept applies to Ajax. The door is yours. Whomever is behind the door is yours.
(Kerry works a little bit with Sophie to make sure she understands the body language involved. Within a few minutes, Sophie is able to answer the door without drama, a first for her and Ajax. For a more detailed description on how to answer “no” for you dog, check out this blog post)
As you can see, “wait” means nothing to a dog, because it’s difficult for a dog to understand that concept appropriately. In dog world, either they can have something (human, food, door, etc.) or they can’t.
When feeding my dogs, I don’t use the “wait” command. I get their food ready, and they “ask” if they can have it yet. My answer is “no”.
When I’m ready, I call them to their enrichment toys so they can eat.
When someone rings the doorbell, they ask if I need help at the door. My answer is no.
Sometimes I put food on the ground, and they ask if they can have it. Sometimes my answer is no, and they never get it. Sometimes my answer is yes.
“Wait” involves a mindset that I think we need to change as humans. We use that word as a place filler, for when we don’t want to come across as “mean”. But since when is claiming what is yours “mean”? My job as a Pilot/dog owner isn’t to make sure my dogs get everything they want, it’s to make sure they get what the need. In some instances, that’s a definite “no”.