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Understanding Your Goals: A Key Step in Dog Training

dog going for a walk

Control yourself. Control the current situation. Answer your dog's new questions.

That's always been my mantra when training dogs (and, truth be told, in life as well).

Control yourself. I am the center of my world, and therefore, it's up to me to control my reactions to the world around me. Simple enough. Deep breath and compose yourself before addressing your dog's current behavior, or before addressing that mess your puppy left you. As Liz Taylor said, "Put on some lipstick, pour yourself a drink, and pull yourself together".

Control the situation. Do not add any new stimuli to a situation you don't already have control of. I've found myself reminding my clients that you never speed up through a sharp turn. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

So if your dog has lost his mind when your guest is on your front porch and has just rang the doorbell, do you really think your dog is going to magically compose himself when you let your guest in? No. Of course not. So address what's happening with your dog in the Right Now. Then you can focus on What May Happen when (and if) it happens.

Answer your dog's new questions. Now that you've got your dog under control at the door, it's time to open the door and let your guest in, and I'm sure your dog is going to have quite a few questions regarding your new guest.

Simply answer your dog's questions, and repeat the mantra over and over again as need: control yourself, control the situation, answer new questions.

That is the essence of working through any of your dog's behaviors and working towards your dog training goals. But that brings up the question, how clear are your dog training goals? Do you even have in mind what you'd like your puppy to be trained to do (or not do)?

Our puppy training goals can get pretty muddled rather quickly, and we lose sight of our original purpose: a well behaved dog. So let's focus a little bit on goal setting.

Dog Training: Keeping it Simple

I had an absolutely amazing dog training session a few nights ago with a dog we will call Caz. Caz is a Very Good Boy (yes he is!) but is young, energetic, and a complete asshole. He has been returned to the shelter at least 2 times for undisclosed reasons (although I'm sure I could come up with a few guesses).

Caz fortunately was adopted about 2 weeks ago by a wonderful couple, Debbie and Al, who immediately called me for dog training, as they knew they were in over their heads with Caz.

Caz is a sweet, loving, wonderful dog, who unfortunately, through no fault of his own, was never taught any impulse control. To make matters worse, he has a lot of anxiety on the leash, which is a pretty big deal since Caz is about 70 lbs.

So how to work through all of these behaviors? Control yourself. Control the situation. Answer new questions.

Rather than simply engaging in dog training with Caz, I explained the concept of Piloting Caz to Deb and Al, and answering his questions ("Can I jump on you?" "Can I drag you on a leash?" "Can we snuggle now?").

By seeing their dog's behaviors as simply a series of unanswered questions, it was much easier to see the pathway to calm through communication, rather than bribing their dog with constant treats, or even worse, utilizing shock collars or prong collars to abuse him into submission.

At one point, after a very productive leash training segment with Caz, we arrived back at their house, and paused in the driveway.

Initially, Caz had tried to drag me out the door at the start of our walk (I was having none of that, and gave him a gentle, but firm, negation to his question about door protocol). And while it took a few rounds of Q&A with Caz regarding door etiquette, he eventually accepted my answer and we proceeded calmly out the door.

We had a great walk, but now Debbie had Caz at the door, and was confused as to how to proceed. She kept dancing around him, switching sides, and moving all around. I could see she was trying to puzzle through how to proceed next.

"I'm not sure what I want him to do", she said.

Al responded before I could say anything: "Instead of constantly focusing on what to do next, do what Kerry just showed us in the house and just negate anything you don't like as it pops up?"

Imagine that! No more series of dog rules and pages of pooch protocol for entering your own house! No, she didn't make Caz sit before he went in, because she didn't care if he did! No, Caz did not need to wait at the door until after she went in, because Debbie didn't give a flying fig who went in first!

Debbie did give Caz a negative when he tried bully his way past her to get into the house, because that's just rude, and she didn't like it. But then when he calmed down again, they both went into the house, with rather little fanfare.

Think about it the same way as having kids.

When I was a little girl, I remember my mom sending my brothers and I outside to play in the summertime with only 3 rules: Be back by dinner time, don't leave the tri-state area, and don't kill each other. #GenZ

There wasn't a huge list of what we should do, because it was easier to list out the couple of things we shouldn't do.

The same goes for working through some of your dog's behaviors.

You don't have to have a game plan, or a ritual for every damn interaction you and your dog have together.

It's okay to simply wait for your dog's natural behaviors, and then just give it a positive or negate it. You don't always have to be in Dog Training Mode.

Focus on Your Dog Training Goals

dog waiting to be fed

Back to my dog training session with Caz, Al and Debbie.

As most of you who have done dog training and puppy training through Darwin Dogs, during your session, I show you how to gently negate your dog's negative behaviors. Questions your dog asks that are answered with a "no" as opposed to a "yes". For example, if my puppy Hazelnut Quagmire asks me two questions: "Can I have that chocolate bar?" vs. "May I please have my walk now?", the former will always be a negative, as we all know chocolate is poisonous to dogs. However, I can easily give a positive to the latter question, as yes, it is indeed time to go for a walk with my dog.

To illustrate this, as well as the techniques involved in giving a dog a negative in such a way that is safe, but also doesn't hurt or scare the dog, I usually demonstrate by taking a handful of high-value food, placing it on the floor, and negating the dog's questions regarding said food. This gives a very good real-life situation to how to work through your dog's behaviors through communication, and gives an opportunity to see that yes, sometimes you do need to answer a question a couple times for your dog, and that's okay.

However, you need to stick to you guns. Because after the exercise, Caz did not get the treats for leaving the treats alone. Do you see how stupid that sounds? "If you leave my treats alone, Caz, you can have my treats." So then what does a negative mean? No means, "no", not wait, and not maybe. I always say what I mean, and follow through with what I say. That's how you build trust, be it through answering questions about the food on the floor, or addressing your dog's concern about their safety around another dog on their walk.

Back to Caz. Now it was Debbie's turn to try putting the food on the floor (which Caz still had not yet tasted). She controlled herself, controlled the situation, and then placed the food on the floor and proceeded to answer all of her dog's questions about the food on the floor until there were no more questions, only the food. Well done Debbie!

She scooped the food back up off the floor, understanding that if she gave them to Caz, it was defeating the purpose: helping him understand that "no" means "no", and starting her dog on the road of impulse control.

I mentioned to Al and Debbie that the particular exercise of placing the food on the floor need not ever be repeated, as life give plenty of opportunities to negate a dog's behaviors. Furthermore, we were literally setting up Caz to receive negatives; entrapment, if you will, and there's only so much of that a dog can take before they get frustrated.

Al mentioned that he would like to try it. My knee-jerk reaction was that Caz needed a few positive situations before we tried that again, but I didn't trust my instincts, and as usual, that caused trouble.

Caz almost immediately because an unruly mess. Jumping, nipping and barking at Al. Caz had lost all impulse control, and Al was struggling.

Now typically, I have it as a source of pride that my clients are able Pilot their dogs during our session, and put a high value item on the floor, thus paving the way towards answering other questions. But then it hit me:

Pride is the epitome of not controlling yourself.

Pride doesn't fill your Piloting bank. Pride doesn't help Caz with his impulse control issues, and it certainly wasn't helping Al as he was fending off Caz's relentless rapid-fire questions.

I took a minute to reevaluate what the goals were here: to teach Al and Debbie how to Pilot their dog, build up their self confidence with Caz, and to start them on their way to filling up their Piloting bank with Caz. How did this fit in with those goals? It didn't. So I pulled the plug and switched it up to something else: a walk.

And how did that walk go? Well, if you read the first half of my blog post, you already know it went beautifully. Al went farther than he ever had with Caz, and passed some exceptionally difficult situations that had seemed insurmountable previously. More importantly, we created a situation where there were still a few questions that Caz asked that needed a negative answer, there were far more that were getting positives. Win/Win.

By focusing on our goals (impulse control with Caz, confidence with Al and Debbie, and building up the Piloting bank) we were able to get so much more accomplished in our first two hour session than we ever could have if we just continued circling the drain with the food on the floor exercise.

Further, if we had continued, I would have been ignoring my mantra by not controlling myself (or my pride), not controlling the situation (I already knew Caz was overstimulated), and definitely unable to answer new questions that Caz had.

Goals are there for a reason. They're important to us. But they always seem to be the first thing we jettison when we actually start working through a behavior.

Our goal may be to be healthier, but the first time we "slip" and have a candy bar, we beat ourselves up, which undermines our goal of health, as mental health is important!

Our goal may be to get up early and start our day at 5:00 am, but we berate ourselves for not having run a half-marathon by 8:00, forgetting that the goal was to start the day earlier, not accomplish all our long term goals by the ass-crack of dawn.

By losing focus of our goals, we are sabotaging ourselves out of our most important goal: progress.

Progress, not perfection, for both dog training and life. Keep calm and Pilot on. You got this.

Learn more about our Piloting Method of dog and puppy training here.

Find out more about our private in home 30 Day Best Dog Ever and 30 Day Best Puppy Ever training packages here.

Have questions about our puppy training or dog training? Find out answers here.

border collie dog

Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Dog Behavior

Greater Cleveland area; Northeast Ohio

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Stumpicus Kat
Stumpicus Kat

Reading this post made me realize that I lost my way - I have been focusing on training and drills so much that I forgot to pay attention to behavior, which means that our peaceable kingdom was not so peaceable any more. I started to see more whining and more barking and more generally annoying and demanding behavior. It happened so gradually that I didn't notice it until I did! Reading this post set me back on track!

It's like in those old comedies when someone gets slapped for being out of control and then says, "Thank you1 I needed that!" Thank you, Kerry, I needed this.

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