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Dog Training: The Most Important Part

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

- Arnold H. Glasow

So, as you may already know, we recently lost a pack member unexpectedly, as well as added a pack member unexpectedly. I still really miss Orion (and Sparta, and Darwin, and even Pebbles, and she's been gone almost 35 years), and I wasn't actively looking for a new dog, but sometimes life makes choices for you.

It's been over 12 years since I had a young dog (Ellis was about one year old when I got him, and Orion was about 7-8 months). Arwen is 5 months old. And there is a world of difference between a dog who is 5 months and a dog who is almost 8 months. We sometimes call her Arwengeddon.

Arwen has brought a lot of joy to our lives in the very short amount of time we've had her, but it hasn't always been easy. Arwen was rather...insulated in her previous home, not being exposed to much stimuli. She's also a border collie, which is essentially as close as we can get to perpetual motion, and she hadn't had very much activity at all in her previous home. So I ended up bringing a bored, hyper, mannerless border collie into my home.

Challenge accepted.

When bringing a new dog home, the first question on most people's minds is how to start training them. Which commands should come first? What method to use? To crate or not to crate?

Regardless of the age, temperament or breed of the dog, the best advice I can give you is this: don't train your dog.

Yeah, I know that sounds weird coming from a dog trainer, but trust me on this. If you start off with a training regime, you're bound to fail. You start off with all the books, all the videos and all the gear. You've signed up for puppy classes once every week for the foreseeable future. You're sent home with tasks to be done: 15 minutes of this command every day, followed by 30 minutes of that procedure every day. Don't forget mandatory nap times and leashed walking for x amount of time per day.

That sounds hellacious. Before you know it, you're annoyed at having to go to class. You're starting to "cheat" on some of the regime you agreed to, cutting short walks, training exercises. You're becoming frustrated because your dog/puppy isn't keeping up with the rest of the class. And now you're feeling defeated because you're frustrated at your dog, and frustrated at yourself for being frustrated with your dog. It's a vicious circle.

So let's just jettison the training (at least for now; do you).

You're missing the most important thing you and your new puppy need to work on: patience. Or more accurately, impulse control.

When I first got Arwen, she wasn't even housebroken. She took treats by inhaling them (regardless of if a finger was still attached. She would charge right through me when I went upstairs, and tried to bolt right out any open door. We really had more important things to work on that sit, stay come, etc. We had impulse control issues.

Problems with impulse control are normal with puppies and young dogs, but as they get older, other pack members would...curb their enthusiasm, per se. Puppies who grow up without these reminders of one's manners tend to grow up into obnoxious dogs, prone to jumping for whatever is in your hand, launching themselves at you for any given reason, or bolting out the door. Arwen was especially bad at taking food or treats. It wasn't that she was trying to bite you, it's that she wasn't not trying to bite you.

So obviously, we started our journey of communication together using the PAW Method (learn more about the PAW Method here, and why Piloting is so important). Arwen had never had anyone answer her questions. She had always been managed, rather than taught. Kind of like Lord Joffrey.

Arwen wasn't bad (dogs are incapable of being bad), she just acted entirely upon impulse. It was my job to help her understand when that was okay, and when she needed to invoke some impulse control.

Helping a dog with impulse control doesn't involve a lot of steps; you're simply going to be using Piloting to answer their questions. So when Arwen asks me if she can bound right past me through the open front door, I'm going to answer her question with a negative. Not pain. Not bribery. Just a simple, cruelty free negative (learn how here). Always remember that Piloting involves controlling yourself, controlling the situation, and then answering the question. So if you know your dog is going to bolt out the door, don't stand there with the door open wide. You have no control of that situation. You would start by simply cracking the door a little bit, and if your dog asks, "Can I move closer to the open door?", or simply tries to charge you, you immediately close the door and use your body language to answer "no".

Simple enough.

Now bear in mind each time you answer your dog's questions, you get money from their Piloting Piggy Bank into yours. And whomever has the most money wins. So what does this look like in a normal day?

It should look less like a restrictive diet and more like a sustainable lifestyle change.

I'm not answering each and every question Arwen asks me; that's like a crash diet. It looks good at the beginning, but it's not sustainable. What I'm going to do is to start enforcing more calm and impulse control. So you want that ball in my hand, Arwen? Jumping is only getting you negatives, but the second you sit, I'll throw the ball for you. So you want to come into my office with me? Pushing past me only makes me close the door as I give you a negative. I see you want your dinner. Jumping and barking will only result in a negative from me; calm is the only way you get your dinner.

Within one hour of her living with me in my house, she got the idea. She was much more calm(er) after she started to realize that her rowdy behavior, which had always been tolerated previously, wouldn't be tolerated here, she started to change. She stopped charging past me down the steps. She started to wait for me to release her when I opened the door outside. And then the tipping point came: she started to calm down in situations I hadn't even addressed yet. A new toy? She really wanted it, so she tried to calm herself down (no jumping, and no barking). You're thirsty and your water is yucky? She patiently waited for me to fill it and put it down, rather than lunging at it before I'd even set it down.

She's now been with us for about 9 days. After the first 12 hours, she understood that patience and impulse control are how to make things happen here. And just like a toddler who initially balks at new rules, she learned to appreciate the calm that came with those new rules, and she began to thrive.

After 24 hours, we were ready to start working on whatever commands I felt the need to teach her, and since we have a foundation built on impulse control, it was a breeze. So far she knows:

- Her name

- Stay

- Come

- Go

- Ball

- Food Ball

- Outside

- Sit

- Crate/place

- To Me (Come and sit on my left side)

- Housebreaking is at about 75%

- Leash walking is about 95% there

Aside from some ancillary tricks I may teach her, that's about all the "training" she needs. I didn't have to spend hours teaching her to sit, stay, come. As she was able to control her impulses, she was able to communicate with me better, and I with her. Rather than scheduling time every day to teach her "sit" over and over until we both lost focus and were frustrated (but determined to hit our 5 minute goal), I would simply name a behavior as she gave it to me, or gently guided her to the behavior. Sit, for instance. She'd already learned impulse control and calming down was the only way she would get dinner, so it didn't take much for me to say "sit" and gently push her butt down. Same with when she wanted to go outside. A simple "sit", butt push, and a "good girl" and she learned sit.

So now I'm in my office, a place where I take my client calls, write my blog posts, and get various tasks done, all of which require a calm setting. Since I've mandated this a "no energy" zone, Arwen knows not to start to wrestle with Ellis in here, otherwise she will get a negative. If it continues, she will be removed from the situation so I can work in peace. She figured it out quite quickly, especially since I set her up for success by making sure she gets plenty of exercise before I attempt to put her in a "calm only" space, as well as the mental stimuli she requires. I have a specific box of dog toys that stay exclusively in my office, so she can quietly engage on a toy that is otherwise inaccessible to her, thus keeping her interest. I've set her up for success, rather than trying to Pilot a bored, hyper mess of a dog.

Basic commands and training a dog are all lovely, wonderful and good, but that's like trying to teach a kid to read and write without any paper or writing instruments. You're doomed to fail. You need to have the basics down first. And I mean you, not your dog. Learn to control yourself as well. Take a look at your current training approach with your dog. Are you lacking impulse control? Do you yell at your dog when they are barking, simply adding to the cacophony of chaos, or are you calming yourself down before you start to address the barking with a calm, gentle negative? Are you taking the easy way out and ignoring when your dog blitzes past you through the door when you let them out, or are you realizing this is a situation that requires addressing?

Making sure you focus on a constant state of impulse control for yourself allows you to see the impulse control issues with your dog more clearly. Your dog will act as a mirror of your energy; what is it you wish to reflect? Calm communication, or chaotic energy?

Our patience will achieve more than our force.

- Edmund Burke

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Keep Calm and Pilot On


Stumpicus Kat
Stumpicus Kat

What an amazing, inspiring journey. Arwen is sure lucky to have been found by you. She looks like a beautiful dog and seems ultra smart!

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack

She has brought a lot of joy into our lives in just the last couple weeks. I feel truly blessed to have stumbled upon her, even though she was being discarded by her previous family.



Great post, again arriving on the perfect day!

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack

Thank you!

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