By: Melissa Kolmar, CPDT-KA
“Our goal should be to become partners with our dogs…not just teach them something.” -Ken Ramirez
Gillian and I attended ClickerExpo in Portland, Oregon last week. It was a three-day conference led by some of the country’s best behavior and training specialists. As you would expect, we had a wonderful time soaking in the knowledge and bonding with our peers over our love of dog training and the science behind it!
While we took away many things from this conference (that we will be implementing into our classes and private sessions), the biggest take away for me was giving our dogs choices and control. These two topics came up again and again in nearly every session I attended.
When you think about it, our dogs have very little choice and control in their life. We tell them when to go outside, what to eat, who to meet, etc. Of course, a dog can’t have 100% control of their life…we have to think of safety. BUT how can we give them more control and choices? Control is a primary reinforcer, just like food or water. Dogs need it and do better if they have some of it (wouldn’t you?)
This could be as simple as our dogs choosing who to greet (or not greet). If your dog is communicating that the don’t want to greet someone, listen to them and don’t force it. Choice also come into play when we talk about handling our dogs. So often the choice is taken away, we hold them and do what we need to do to get the ear drops in, nail trim done, exam administered, etc. But what if we taught them a chin rest so they could control the experience? Their chin goes in my hand, exam begins. If the chin comes up, exam stops. The dog is in control of the experience. If they feel overwhelmed they can stop the examination.
I saw choice illustrated beautifully in the Shelter Dog class I teach on Thursdays. One of the volunteers had a sweet pup who got distracted at the end of his leash as he looked around at the other dogs and people in class. She didn’t pull him or try to gain his attention. She patiently waited and the second he turned back to her, she marked and reinforced that orientation to her. She was communicating with him that he had the choice to watch his environment, and when he was ready to work, she would be there with the reinforcement. Giving dogs choices can actually make your training go further, faster.
How can you offer your dog more control in their life? What choices can you give them? I know I am certainly asking myself these questions with my own dogs and I encourage you to ask these questions with your dogs as well.
“Training is a flexible conversation you can have with your dog rather than just cue-and-response.” -Leslie McDevitt
Image from: Karen Pryor Clicker Training Facebook