Friday, October 9, 2009

Sometimes Training is About Doing Nothing

Sometimes the impression is made that dog training is all about getting your dog to jump through a hoop, offer a paw shake or perform an instant "sit" on command. It's easy to get caught up in the idea that, in order for it to be "training", the dog must be constantly moving around and doing something.

Of course, it is very important to train your dog to be able to live happily with you, and these behaviors can help replace behaviors you don't like. They can also be used to help your dog cope in certain situations. But sometimes, it's good training or conditioning to just do nothing.

In my work, I often encounter dogs that may be obedient, but that are not well-adjusted, balanced or happy dogs. There's a big difference to me in a dog that has been taught to sit on cue, but doesn't like being around other dogs, or even people, because they make him nervous. Other dogs are very well-adjusted, confident and love to greet people by jumping up, and simply lack training.

For example, a client came to see me about her dog, which reacts around other dogs on leashed walks. Her dog is okay with other dogs after a slow introduction (I think it is normal for dogs to go slow getting to know each other, see our article on dog intros here.), but while walking on leash, he exhibits an intense reactivity to other dogs. (For more information on leash reactivity, click here.) Her dog has been to our classes, and she has worked on distraction techniques and has made a lot of progress. But sometimes, it's best to just do nothing.

If your dog isn't even listening to your cues because he's too worked up, then it's best to just let him get comfortable IN that scenario, i.e. on leash, in the street, or on a walk with another dog. You can take the pressure OFF of your dog by letting him know he doesn't have to meet the other dog, react the "right" way around the dog, or perform some command. Just let him get used to the idea that there is a dog somewhere around and it's okay. There is NO pressure, no "you have to say hi to this other nice dog," or "you have to sit and look at me, and you can't do anything else." Many dogs, in fact, "do something else," such as sniffing the grass, in order to cope with this sort of experience.

When the pressure is off to meet and greet, or to do something else, the dog will generally relax, especially if she's a comfortable distance from the other dog. It's important to make sure that you don't push your dog too far, too fast. If your dog is comfortable a block away from another dog, let her have that. Then work in baby steps until she can comfortably be closer to the other dog. Don't push it to the point where she becomes very uncomfortable. Of course, you would still provide leadership to let her know that she doesn't have to worry, and that you have everything under control.

We work with dogs that come from abuse cases, and sometimes it's helpful to just let the dog know that, wherever he is, he's safe and all is okay. This is not so much "training" as it is "conditioning", and sometimes one is more helpful than the other, depending on the dog and the situation. In our work, we do a lot of conditioning or counter-conditioning, and letting the dog know that all is well.

-- Marthina McClay, CPDT

1 comment:

  1. excellent! The best trainers are all about listening to their dog and accounting for the uniqueness in each