This week I have been reflecting that my dogs have had the opportunity to do much, much more than most dogs do. One of my recent clients came for help to get her dog to stop lunging and barking at passersby while in the house, but she had no, zero, interest in teaching her dog to do anything else. She didn’t want one of those “fancy trick” dogs; she wanted her dog to be his authentic self, but without barking and lunging at passersby. She didn’t see the connection between the relationship that is built during training those tricks and the ability to cope with people passing the house.
The thing is that when you teach a dog to do “tricks “you are preparing your dog for things that might happen, for those passersby, for all of the weird and wonderful things that occur in the human world. When I am teaching a dog new behaviours, I am not just teaching him skills although that is an important part of the equation. I am also teaching my dog to be flexible in how he thinks and what we do together. Training is really a joint activity; I cannot train without the dog and the dog cannot train without me. This special relationship is what keeps me training-it is the foundation upon which everything else is based.
My ultimate goal with my own dogs is to be able to give them enough education to be comfortable in whatever situation I might need them to be in. In short this means that if I need my dogs to go to the emergency vet clinic where they have never ever been before, I want them to have enough experience and background to be able to confidently and happily go to the vet clinic without any hassle. I want them to know what is expected of them and how to do what I need them to do. I expect that they will not protest when the vet needs to look at their injury. I expect that they will tolerate the tech restraining them, even if she has long purple dreadlocks and is wearing a surgical mask.
Likewise, I don’t ask my dogs to do things I have not prepared them to do. I was at the Canada Day Celebration this year and watched one lady with a pair of stunning German Shorthaired Pointers. Both dogs were on prong collars and the woman’s bicep was HUGE. Why? Likely because she never ever allowed even an inch of slack in those dog’s leashes. She held them with their necks up high for over two hours, in the heat and when one of the dogs shied away from a frightening parade act, she strongly corrected both dogs. Neither dog was prepared for the event. It was sad to watch.
When I was partnered with a service dog, he had to be able to tolerate and even enjoy a lot of things that regular dogs don’t have to put up with. Stuck in security in the heat in the airport without water for two hours while they figure out what to do with a service dog? No problem. Came off a flight delayed five hours and need to toilet? He can pee on a sewer grate…No Problem! Walking through downtown Montreal and we encounter a brass band walking along and they honk us? NO PROBLEM! Why? Because we trained for such a wide variety of things that this was just one more thing for him to do.
Training for difficult events is my responsibility should I want to take my dog places. When I visited a friend in Ottawa with my service dog, we had a grand evening playing around the statues that surround Parliament Hill. D’fer was a great sport and tolerated and even enjoyed himself quite a bit, posing with bronze statues of all types. This kind of an activity is the sort of thing that I do to help my dogs to learn to accept strange circumstances, and it is a lot of fun for both of us.
Every week through the summer, the advanced students in our Levels Program meet in downtown Guelph near the splash pad in front of city hall. We practice down stays in public. We meet people. We greet people. We do tricks and leash walking and we sit down and socialize for a little while with one another. All around us we have children running and playing and the splash pad splashing and buses pulling up and stopping and one memorable time a large protest and a few hundred motorcycles. We practice what we have learned in class out in the wider world. These are dogs who will be able to do more.
There is a small issue to consider and if you don’t consider it, you will soon face a BIG issue. That is taking your dog out to do more when he is under or unprepared. Training of tricks like sit, come when called, look at me before we start doing things, lie down and wait while we set things up and even sit and stay while we take your picture are all tools that the dog needs in order to be successful at picnics, ball games and family gatherings. If you have not taken the time to teach your dog all that he needs to know and then taught him to do all those things in a variety of places, you are going to struggle with a dog who really doesn’t understand what to do.
Learning is an interesting phenomenon. As an experienced adult learner you likely feel like you can learn anything you need to know and apply it when needed regardless of the context. For a young child or for a dog, learning is not that simple. It is important that when you teach a dog a new trick you practice that trick in a number of different places and contexts. Just because your dog can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean he will understand to do that on the edge of a fountain or in the park or even at school. With dogs we must teach dogs that they can use their skills in a variety of places.
The easiest thing to do is to start out by taking your dog to new places and feeding him. If he can take food, then try clicking and treating. If he can take treats after a click in a new place, then try asking for a simple behaviour. I call this going on a field trip; we go new places and practice what we have learned already. We learn to work together in the field as it were. Teaching a dog the rules of the game is not difficult but it is unfair to ask him to play if he doesn’t know what to do. Step by step, little by little, teaching your dog what to do and when and then practicing together in a variety of places and contexts can be a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, you will have a dog who is more able to connect with you in order to do fun stuff than you could ever believe. Those “fancy tricks” translate into a pretty cool relationship.