Whether we’re talking about high-performance working dogs or enjoyable pets, there are certain common factors shared by healthy, well-behaved dogs. Here are seven of them, we'll discuss one a week so please check back.
Habit #1 -- Their person is the most interesting thing in the world.
In any situation your dog is going to respond to whatever is most interesting, meaningful, and rewarding at that moment. No matter how good the training is, perfectly reliable behavior does not exist, they are dogs, not machines. Your responsibility as the handler / trainer / human in the relationship is to both manage the situation appropriately so the dog is not placed at undue risk, and to become more interesting and rewarding than all of the other choices. There will be important breed-specific and individual nuances but the application of the concept is uniformly important.
How do you become the most interesting thing in the world for your dog? It doesn’t happen from bribes, lures, being “nice” to the dog, giving the dog lots of treats, or getting the dog excited, and it certainly doesn’t come from force, coercion or intimidation – it comes from good habits, applying the principles of modern scientific training, advocacy, trust, and good leadership. In short, a sound relationship.
You become more interesting if your dog can understand you, less so if she cannot. There are physiological limits to what a dog is able to understand, so if we want them to understand us, we have to engage them on their terms. We have three ways we can communicate with dogs; body language (posture, movement, proximity), voice (sounds that humans can make), and touch. Body language is far more important and meaningful to dogs than voice. All dog behavior is meaningful, and it is reasonable to think that they expect yours to be, too, except all too often it isn’t. So one of the top priorities is to make sure that your behavior as the dog perceives it is consistent with your intent.
I have even seen animal care professionals who “talk with their hands” come very close to being bitten because they were not paying attention to the dog’s affect, they got animated during a conversation, and created a sudden environmental contrast in the dog’s visual field. Then there’s the casual passer-by who ignores your polite request to keep his distance, insisting “It’s OK, I’m good with dogs” as he leans over the dog from the front and reaches to pat the dog on the head as he looks straight into the dog’s now round eyes with white showing at the edges. A good trainer should teach you to read canine body language as part of the training program. There are also a lot of great resources on the Web; I recommend starting with Dr. Sophia Yin’s work at https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/free-downloads-posters-handouts-and-more/
Voice includes the spoken word plus clicks, whistles, and any other sound a human can make. While dogs can associate sounds with behaviors, they have no ability to understand language in any human sense of the word. Some dogs might even learn to associate a surprising number of words with activities or things, but they will never conjugate a verb for you. At least in the beginning, stop talking to your dog during training. It seems counter-intuitive, but the training will go faster, be more effective, and you will become more interesting.
Touch takes many forms, hopefully all humane. I consider the leash to be a form of touch and connection with the dog as well as a control and management strategy.
Consistency and context are essential components to all three modes of engagement. Because a dog’s ability to understand its environment is rule governed, their ability to accurately interpret your desires or intent depend heavily on consistency and context. When training, and especially until the dog learns to generalize the command, it is of the greatest importance to make sure that your body language, your voice, and your intent all match. If your dog can interpret your intent, you will be less confusing and consequently more interesting. If the dog cannot understand you, at some point it will quit trying.
Dogs are evolved as opportunistic omnivores, or scavengers. Because of the structure and function of their brain, they don’t have “right and wrong” or “good and bad” as we know it. They have “works” and “didn’t work.” If a behavior works, that is, gets them what they want, they catalog that behavior and are likely to repeat it. If it doesn’t work, they are less likely to repeat it. If a behavior works sometimes and doesn’t work other times, this can create a serious problem in a relationship with a human. This is a subject in itself, we’ll get to it in another blog post. For now, consistency is a virtue regarding what behaviors are rewarded.
Routine is related to consistency, and important for similar reasons. Dogs love routine. It makes them feel safe, it makes their world predictable, and believe it or not, routines that are fun make you more interesting to them.
A human can become reliably interesting to a dog if all good things come from the human and are contingent upon desirable behavior – a.k.a. “Nothing In Life Is Free.” I get a lot of resistance to this one from people who confuse what they want with what the dog wants. This is a type of anthropomorphism, and it is one of the single greatest impediments to training. Dogs are happy when they can connect behavior to outcomes, and they are happiest when they can earn their rewards. If you reward your dog for doing nothing, at best you will confuse him, which usually results in anxiety.
The most interesting human is the good leader. Dogs have no concept of equal – you are either “bigger” than the dog or “smaller.” Technically speaking, either you have preferred access to resources, or the dog does. More to the point, you are making the rules, or the dog is. The dog cannot understand a world without rules, so if you don’t make them, the dog will. This is also a subject in itself, for now, make sure the rules are fair, consistent, understandable, and that the dog is able to “win the game” with desirable behavior.
Your dog will view you as a good leader if you are fair, consistent, clear in your communication, and you predictably and reliably work to secure your dog’s well-being, that is, you advocate for your dog.
Once you are the most interesting thing in the world to your dog, you have engagement.