Updated: May 28
In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Entering into a new dog training session, there are always a few consistencies. I have only two hours to accomplish many things:
Gain the trust of the humans
Gain the trust of the dog(s)
Ascertain the situation
Develop a game plan for addressing the behavior issues
Create bonds of communication between dog and owner
It doesn’t necessarily happen in that order, but that’s a pretty good synopsis of everything I can accomplish in two hours. It seems like a lot, but as I’ve stated numerous times, dogs aren’t stupid. I also believe that (most) people aren’t stupid either. There are, of course, occasionally the incredible human exceptions. Dogs, however, are amazingly simple. That’s why I’m able to keep my training sessions short and simple.
Remember, there is nothing wrong with your dog; he just sucks at being human. And most people are pretty decent humans; they just suck at being dogs.
So, simply put, we need some communication going on, not a bunch of rules and regulations about how the two species should interact. Three steps to working with your dog; that’s all it takes for any situation involving a dog to be solved. Nothing complicated. No charts or graphs, just simple communication.
I firmly believe dogs ask questions. We’ve already agreed that dogs aren’t stupid, so of course they ask questions. They’re curious creatures, and aside from wanting to know about their world around them, they want to know what you think of the world around them. How should they react? Should they react? And most importantly, is it time to eat?!
All of their questions can be answered, but not all of them necessarily need to be answered. There are simply some that must be answered. But more on that in a moment.
Working with your dog involves 3 components: Piloting, Activity and Work, or what we refer to as The PAW Method. To break it down:
Answer your dog’s questions. They only ask “yes/no” questions, so it’s pretty easy to do! Learn how here.
Keep ‘em moving and active. Ever experience something called a runner’s high? Yeah, well, neither have I, but I hear it’s wonderful, and dog’s are addicted to it. They need their Activity, and either you give it to them, or they figure out how to get it themselves, and that’s never a good thing.
Dogs aren’t stupid, nor are they merely knick-knacks strewn about your house to be idly admired: they are thinking beings with cognitive abilities that we still haven’t fully explored in the tens of thousands of years they’ve been with us. In other words, keep them mentally engaged. A bored dog is truly a destructive force.
Learning the Language of Dogs
The PAW Method is the groundwork; your foundation. Make it a good, strong foundation, and you can build upon it by answering your dog’s questions. Now that you've got the tools, let's learn how to use them.
Dogs are binary, which means every question they ever ask you will require a “yes” or a “no”, which is different than “good” or “bad”. Remember, you are merely answering questions for your dog, not punishing them, nor should you be inflicting pain or fear upon a dog.
Your dog is incapable of being bad: he will always choose what’s right for a dog, which may be in direct conflict of what’s right for a human.
Since dogs communicate primarily using “yes” and “no”, this makes it exceptionally easy to learn their language. But when do you give negatives, and when do you use positives? Simple.
1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing. Sounds simple enough, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t understand that “No” is a complete sentence and can be used liberally. Ask yourself, “Do I like this behavior that Fido is doing?” If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative.
Anything from jumping, barking, and getting on furniture to the simple questions Fido may ask on a walk: “Do we turn left here?”. If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative! Remember negative doesn’t mean bad, it just means “no”.
2) When your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you. Wow….there’s a term. What’s “Yo, Bitch”, anyway? Symptoms include: slapping you with their paw, trampling you, pushing you out of your seat on the couch. Basically, any behavior that would translate to : “Yo Bitch, give me a cookie”, or “Yo Bitch, pet me”. It’s as detrimental to your healthy relationship with your dog as it would be in any human relationship!
Respect yourself enough to expect respect from your dog.
Your dog is perfectly capable of a “May I Please?” instead of a “Yo, Bitch”, and you know the “May I Please?” look. It goes something like this:
“May I Please” ….have a cookie? Go for a walk? Jump in your lap? All of these can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”. Your choice. But if your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you, the answer must be a negative. Don’t accept a yo bitch dog‘s behavior.
So how do you answer a dog’s questions?
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, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.
Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, looking anywhere but at the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.
Think of it as a game of hot/cold. His question is, “Can I have that?” The answer is “No”. You answer his question using that body language. When he accepts the answer (looking at you, everything, or nothing, but definitely NOT looking at the treat), then you’re finished. Remove your negative body language. You may have to put the negative body language right back on him if he immediately tries to go for it, but that’s natural – it may take him a few times to accept your answer. Remember, remaining calm is the key.
Anger should never be a part of Piloting.
So again, Piloting is answering a dog’s questions. You would answer the question in the same way if he is asking if something is a threat (stand between your dog and the perceived threat, facing your dog, and simply back him off while standing up straight). Pretty easy, huh? 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.
1) The “come” command. Always, always, always…positive. Give them a treat. Tell them how wonderful they are! Scratch their belly. Whatever it takes to get them to understand that what they did was wonderful. If you need help with “recall/come”, check out this link.
2) Asking a dog to do a “human” behavior. Your dog is a perfect dog, and can be expected to do dog things wonderfully. Being a human, on the other hand…well, that’s a little different. Any time you are asking your dog to do something that another dog couldn’t ask them to do, you must use positive reinforcement. For example, a dog will tell another dog to go away, or play, or stay away from their toy. But they don’t teach each other English (sit, stay, come, etc.), nor do they teach each other tricks. If you ask a dog to do a human thing, make it worth their while.
3) When they’re calm. This is the most important of all. I always tell my clients I want “calm” to be like a lottery ticket:
1) you have to play to win; 2) You probably aren’t going to win; and 3) But unless you’re holding a ticket, you’re definitely not going to win.
I want your dog holding a many lottery tickets as possible. Because the more tickets they have, the better their chances are at winning. Reward calm any chance you get, and pretty soon Fido will understand that “calm” is like a magic button he can press that will (sometimes) get him exactly what he wants. If you see your dog sleeping on the floor, give him a gentle scratch behind the ears. If you’re cuddling on the couch, give him gentle praise for being calm.
And remember, calm is about progress, not perfection. So if you’re dealing with separation anxiety, just reward progress. If you are crate training, but your dog in the crate and walk into the other room. He’s going to escalate to a decibel 11….simply wait him out until he goes down to an 8 before re-entering the room.
You are trying to catch a behavior: increased calm. It’s not always immediate, and it is rarely perfect, but that doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t there to catch. Make sure you reward it.
So let’s break everything down
Your dog needs Piloting, Activity and Work (the foundation). Only once you have given them what the need are you able to build upon that foundation by answering your dog’s questions using “yes/no”. Pretty simple. You’ll notice I didn’t give a lot of rules. I hate rules. They don’t take into account human and dog personalities.
I know many trainers who:
-Insist a dog should never be on your bed. Why not? I sleep better snuggled next to a dog. Just remember it’s your bed, and your choice who is in it.
-Don’t give your dog people food. Because….? My dogs get plenty of people food (in a healthy moderation, of course). If it isn’t on the lethal list (grapes, onions, chocolate, etc.), and your dog isn’t “Yo, Bitch-”ing you for the food, go ahead! Just remember, it’s their right to beg for food, (“Can I have some?”) just as it’s your right to answer “no”.
- Never play rope toy/tug/wrestle with your dog because then they’ll know they can beat you. News flash: my dog already knows they can beat me. Using that logic I should never run with my dog because they are faster. Playing rope/tug/wrestling with your dog is all about setting your boundaries. We bond through play, and this is a prime way to do it…if you wish. Set your boundaries.
For example, when Sparta and I would play, I had very l