Updated: Sep 12
Spending a lot of time trying to train your dog, but not getting very far? Let’s take a look at the top reasons why so much effort is yielding so little result.
I developed the PAW Method of dog training many, many (many) years ago as a way to simplify training. It was designed to be an adaptable method created to evolve to fit each unique dog/owner situation, and thus far, it’s been amazing. Simple, effective training based upon communication rather than awful brutality and domination. I wanted a method that was intrinsic in its implementation, rather than feeling gimmicky or difficult to work with, and any type of ”alpha” mentality was quickly jettisoned.
I also don’t negotiate with terrorists, so bribing your dog by flinging constant treats at them seemed pretty non-sensical as well. While positive reinforcement is integral in any learning situation, chucking a biscuit at Fido to keep him from jumping on me seemed rather silly and absurd.
Over the years, I have had wonderful response to the PAW Method, mostly due to the easy to use formula: Piloting (think of it as parenting, a gentle guidance), Activity (hyper dogs with pent-up energy is not conducive to learning, and Work (ever try to train a bored Border Collie?). Hence the PAW Method.
Sometimes things get lost in the shuffle, though, so let’s take a moment to reboot and do a bit of troubleshooting your dog/owner relationship, and why your current method of training may not be working for you.
Tip #1 - You’ve Confused Communication with Domination
Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. - Nietzsche
Yikes, that’s a big one. Toxic terms such as "Alpha", "Pack Leader", or other such nonsense may have creeped into your vocabulary. Absolutes are never conducive to learning, either for you or your dog. And let’s face it, while your dog is learning to live in a human world, it’s up to you to learn how to communicate with your dog, rather than expecting absolute obedience.
Piloting your dog involves communication. Your dog is constantly asking questions, and basing their behaviors upon the answers (or lack thereof) that they receive. If their questions are met with forceful or abusive methods, then very quickly, your dog is going to shut down on you. Your dog has stopped communicating with you; they’ve become a supplicant to you, hoping not to anger you for fear of your response, or ignoring your irrational behavior altogether.
And those dogs with the ultra-focused on you, constantly staring at you to see what you want (or don’t want) them to do next? If you’ve been using a shock collar or a prong collar, they’re watching you because they are afraid of asking you the wrong question.
Fido: Can I chase the squirrel? *SHOCK*
Fido: Can I steal food from the counter? *SHOCK*
Fido: Can I walk a little faster on the leash *SHOCK*
Well, rather than answering their questions, you’ve made them afraid to ask any questions at all. That’s like going to marriage counseling, and after describing the communication breakdown in your marriage, the counselor asking if you’ve tried punching your spouse to help them communicate better.
So now Fido is a ball of anxiety, afraid to ask the questions they desperately need an answer to: Is that dog across the street going to hurt me? Should I be afraid of the fireworks? Is it okay if I eat my food now?
You’ve confused communicating with dominating, and your dog is the one suffering from it. They’re afraid to ask a question for fear of what the answer may be. No, your dog isn’t well-trained; they’ve just been conditioned to stop asking questions for fear of your answer.
The text-book definition of anxiety is fear of the unknown. By making your dog more afraid of your answer than the actual question, you have created a dog with anxiety.
It’s not just the pain-centric training methods that create an anxious dog (although that’s the most common anxiety inducing thing that I see). Constant yelling and shouting at your dog will frequently have a similar outcome. If every time your dog does something “bad”, you yell at them and lose control of yourself, even if you aren’t hitting them, you are still making them anxious. We know it’s wrong to do it to a child, why would it be okay to do it to a dog. Your dog doesn’t know he did anything bad, he just knows that you are incapable of controlling yourself.
Gently guide your dog.
Communicating with your dog means giving clear, precise answers to them in a way they understand, and encourages them to look to you for gentle guidance and answers.
Tip #2 - You’ve Lost Sight of the Actual Problem
You can’t see the forest for the trees. What is your actual goal?
For example, during a training session, my clients frequently have a list of issues that they want to tackle with their dog. Frequently that includes a dog not coming when called (“recall”). I always pose this question to my clients:
”Why should they come when called?”
The answers I get are always rather amusing.
- “Because I told them to.” Are you sure you did? Was it in a way they understand?
- “Because I need them to.” But in your dog’s mind, they need to continue doing what they’re doing right now.
- “Because I’m their leader. “
Well, I’m fairly certain they didn’t vote for you.
But my favorite answer of all:
Ahhhh….there it is. That light bulb going off. The "aha!" moment that I so love. There is literally no good reason (so far) that you’ve given your dog as to why they should come when you call them. But even worse, if you’re relying on the “because I told you to” logic. The problem isn’t actually that they won’t come when you call them. The problem is that they’ve put you directly to voicemail. You have no money in your Piloting Piggy Bank.
Each question you answer for your dog (that doesn’t involve fear or bribery) earns you money out of their Piloting Piggy Bank into your Piloting Piggy Bank. Whomever has the most money wins.
So putting that into context, you’ve called your dog, but your dog wants to continue smelling around outside. Your answer is “no”, which given the present set of circumstances outside, will cost you $5.00 for them to accept. Right now you have about $3.00. Your dog has $50,000.00. Of course they won’t come when you call them. Obviously you can’t pay for that answer right now. In other words, their present course of action is worth more to them than your calling them. You’re broke, and most likely, in debt.
So how do you fix that? Enforce your answer. If you call your dog, the result should be that they come to you. Not that you keep shouting, “Bella, come! C’mon Bella! Get over here Bella!!!!!! Come!!!!!”. That’s obviously getting you nowhere, and is what I call the “Stop or I’ll say ’Stop’ again” mentality.
If the come command costs $5, and you’ve only got $3, you need to go outside and collect your dog. Immediate response, rather than waiting for your dog to lollygag their way back to the house on their own time. Go outside and get your dog. Don’t yell, watch your body language (you shouldn’t look like you’re about to whoop their ass). Just unemotionally go retrieve your dog. Congratulations, you enforced your answer, and just took some money from their Piloting Piggy Bank and deposited it into your own account for next time. You’ve now set precedence that when you call them you will indeed follow through. For more information on how to be successful with the come command, check out this link.
Tip #3 - You’ve Taken it Personally
Your dog is not against you, they are for themselves. No, your dog did not "rage-shit" on the carpet because they were angry you left them home alone. They were stressed. Your dog did not chew up your shoes because they hate you; they tried to calm their anxiety (or boredom) by stimming on something that carries your scent. Your dog is not your enemy.
Dogs are exceptionally logical creatures. Everything they do is for a reason. Accept that you are not omnipotent nor all-seeing, and cannot possibly know the reason they do all the things they do. The best you can do is come from a place of empathy. Rather than looking at your dog as being a jerk for barking all the time for no good reason, seeing life through his eyes can help. To learn more about things your dog wishes you knew, give this post a read.
Tip #4 - You're Beating Yourself Up
So. Much. Guilt.
I spoke with a client the other day who was struggling with walking her reactive dog. I asked her to give me some details.
She had been walking her dog about 2 miles every morning right before work. She was frustrated because the walk was miserable, and he was reacting almost the entire way. It was a struggle the entire way.
I asked her why she was taking her reactive dog so far.
"Because I feel guilty if I don't; he likes walks."
The whole situation was doomed to fail from the start. She walked him right before work, so she felt pressed for time to begin with. She went so far because she felt guilty if she didn't, but she really didn't have control of the situation to be able to take him that far. She felt she had to do everything perfectly, or she was a bad dog mom. It had to be two miles every morning. It had to be before work because...she didn't even know why, she just felt she was an awful person if she didn't do it in the morning.
As Voltaire stated, don't let the perfect be the enemy of good.
We reworked her routine. Instead of feeling guilty for not being perfect, we talked about how good she was, and ways to work through some of the tougher problems. Yes, her dog wants a 2 mile hike every morning, but I want a pony.
But what you want and what you need are two different things. Her dog needed exercise, so we worked some hacks into the daily routine that went beyond a walk.
We discussed how to make the walk more efficient (hint: it's not about how far you go). The walk is there to get money out of your dog's Piloting Piggy Bank, and to allow them to mentally reboot. You will never wear your dog out by simply walking your dog. Pick a distance that easily manageable for you. That can be a 5 mile walk through the forest (as with my Ellis) or up and down the driveway for 10 minutes at a time (as when I first got Arwen and had a myriad of issues to work through).