Love vs. Trust - Why it Matters in Dog Training
Do you trust me? - Aladdin
You did it. After some research to into how to find a good match for you and your family, you adopted/rescued your new family member. Congratulations! But...now what? Well, that depends.
As you may know, I recently foster-failed a pit bull named Ellis. He had been found wandering the streets of Cleveland, brought to a local shelter, where I had been asked to help with another dog. I offered to foster Ellis for two weeks in order to polish him up so as to help him get a home. He had already been at the shelter for 6 months, which for a young dog like Ellis (who was estimated at just under a year), that's a bit over forever.
Well, two weeks morphed very quickly into forever, and I'm forever grateful this little lunatic came into my life. He's helped me reaffirm certain aspects of the PAW Method I developed for training dogs, and has helped me redefine others.
One thing that was made quite obvious from the beginning was the difference between love and trust, and how that enters into training. Ellis absolutely loved us all from the very beginning. It's just who he is: he loves everyone, and that's something I adore about him. But trust was a completely different matter.
For example, it took only about an hour in our house for Ellis to determine that we weren't going to hurt him immediately, but he was extremely jumpy with new behaviors, or if you hovered over him while, say, trying to fix his leash. He was definitely not aggressive per se, but he was very easily startled. He acted like unpopped popcorn. You can nuke yourself a bag in the microwave, wait for the popping to stop, and just when you think it's safe, you open the bag and that one unpopped kernel explodes and hits you square in the eyeball. I was constantly in fear of Ellis' head ramming my upper teeth into my lower lip as he headbutted me.
So he loved us, he just didn't quite trust our actions yet. Especially what I call Stupid Human Actions. Dogs don't hover over other dogs, it's considered aggressive. As is staring at them in the face. And dog definitely don't hug each other. So all of these things were crazy to him, and a complete culture shock. He definitely needed to decompress first, and just frankly get used to How Humans Move.
So for the first few weeks I had him, we didn't work on any commands really. I limited my interactions with him to giving him calm positives and gentle negatives.
Ellis: May I go into the study?
Me: No, Ellis, that's off limits.
Only I didn't use words, I used his language: body language, as outlined here.
Ellis: May I please come up on the couch?
Me: Sure, c'mon up!
Ellis: Should I be calm on the couch with you?
Me: Yes. Good job, Ellis.
It was imperative that the positives I gave him didn't rile him up, but still marked his behavior as a positive. Calm was good. In these instances, I channel my inner Farmer from Babe.
So simple sets of Q&A with calm, gentle answers. Of course I never put him into a scenario where my answers needed to be more firm. He had restricted access to the house. Toys and food weren't left around, and the cats more or less vacated the premises when he was around, so I didn't have to answer big questions about the Ouch Kitties with the Murder Mittens.
Once Ellis learned that yes, I do give answers, but they never involved pain or fear, we could move on to bigger things, such as teaching him that the person at the door was none of his business (learn how here). Yes, much firmer body language was involved, but didn't come at the cost of causing him anxiety. So his bigger questions involved bigger answers, but never violence or pain. Now he was starting to trust me a little more. Time to add even more stimuli.
The biggest problem I was having with him was energy. He actually walked very well from the beginning (see here how I taught him), but the walk will only get you so far with a dog that's under a year and full of energy. He needed more. He was still flighty, so treadmill training was a point far off in the horizon, but that was okay. I knew just what to do. Put a backpack on him (learn about it here)! Problem was, he was too high energy to stop dancing around every time I tried to put it on, but he needed it on to get his energy out. It was like trying to saddle a bronco after the gate had already been pulled
This was going to require a lot of patience.
I needed to desensitize him to some of the weirder human things we do, and to get him to trust me that it was okay. But let's face it, why should he trust me? Let's put it like this: I love my two kids, but I don't trust them to drive a car. So while the love part was easy with Ellis, the trust part was going to take a little bit of work. So we started slowly with what could potentially be a very frustrating process. And yes, I used a lot of Piloting, constantly controlling the situation before adding more stimulation.
Fortunately, Ellis can be rewarded with treats, praise or play. For this, I chose treats. I would place a pile of treats on the table, and every time he remained calm while I fiddled with the backpack in any capacity, he got a positive/treat. At first, it was just putting his head through the collar of the backpack = treat. After our first session, I was able to place his head through the collar (treat) and the pack on his back (treat), but heaven forbid I try to snap any of the three fasteners.
But the object of this was to solve the problem, not to solve the problem immediately. He didn't trust what I was doing, and that was fine. You can't make trust happen. Anyway, the goal was progress, not perfection, so we kept at it. After about 5 days, he accepted our baby steps, and that was that. No more bronco. Nowadays, all I have to do is hold up the backpack and he thrusts his head through the collar and stands patiently while I snap everything in place. You can read about a similar approach used when cutting a dog's nails here.
Yes, Ellis had loved me from the beginning, but now he was really starting to trust me. After all, in his mind, I hadn't beaten/electrocuted/prong-collared him yet, so it was unlikely I was going to do anything drastic now.
But there's another aspect to trust: trust that someone is looking out for you. That's where the Piloting comes in. Remember when Ellis and I were working on answering the door? He had plenty of questions:
- Who's there? None of your business, Ellis. - Are they going to hurt us? No. I would never let you get hurt.
And just like every other negative I give, I followed through on my answers until he accepted them. And guess what? Nobody died. Nobody got hurt. And the whole thing was pretty anti-climatic. Which is a good thing. The more I answered the door (and answered his questions in the process), the more he trusted me to handle the situation, until he actively started looking to me to see how he should react. And that was the sweet spot. He finally trusted me. He no longer needed to be autonomous and look out for himself. He had a Pilot to help him navigate the human world. He was trusting me, and he was calming down dramatically.
It was at this point, when I had earned his trust, that I was able to start teaching him the mandatory commands: sit, stay, come and "place". If I had started when he was still wary of me, it would have led to frustration for all of us. Yes, he did pick up some words and routines on his own at this time ("ball" and "go for a walk" being the biggest), but I didn't have to give him a command that he didn't trust me enough to follow through on. If he's still a bit too jumpy to get too close, why would I try working on the "come" command with him at that time? By waiting a week or so, we hit our groove, and most of these commands worked themselves out. We polished up what needed to be fine tuned, and we were good to go within a month. Completely well-mannered on a leash, excellent recall, and sit and stay commands right where they needed to be. All without frustration.
Now, I needed to take the scenic route with Ellis because he was so skittish (and full of youthful energy, to boot). Not every dog takes so long. Some take only a few hours, or a day at most, to trust you. Some dogs may take even longer than Ellis did, especially dogs from abusive situations or puppy mills. So don't have a time frame; have an end goal. Keep walking, slowly, towards that goal, because the trust you earn from your dog will be worth it.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio