Let’s stop training dogs with commands
“Command.” It is the second word spoken amongst the dog training community that needs to disappear. More about the first one here. A command is defined as an order to be carried out by a subordinate. It is not a request and must be obeyed whether the dog wants to obey or not.
It's all about relationship
I want to talk about my relationship with my dogs, Fisher in particular, before I go further into the topic of why “command” should be taken out of the dog training vocabulary. Fisher is a 6 month old Golden Retriever that came to my home at 8 weeks of age. From that first interaction through today, we have developed and built upon our personal and working relationships.
I want Fisher to have the enthusiasm and drive to work with me, not for me. To achieve this, I follow 5 simple rules that I put in place for myself.
- Have a plan before starting any training session
I need to make sure that I have a clear picture of what I am looking to achieve in our session and what I can do to tweak the activity if Fisher seems to be having trouble.
- Keep sessions short
This is a tough one for me. I love training and I want to keep going well past the amount of time that is beneficial for Fisher. But I make sure to stop before reaching the point where training becomes work; one to two minutes maximum. Training sessions should be kept especially short when learning new activities.
- Mix it up
Working on the same activity over and over again is tedious and boring to a dog. It’s a great way to fizzle out his enthusiasm to train.
- Avoid the “no reward marker”
A no reward marker is a signal that tells the dog they have done something wrong. Think of the words “no” and “eh-eh” and how you would feel if your boss continually said them to you instead of helping you understand the new task you have been given. I would dread going to work if I was in that position. I do not tell Fisher that he is wrong. Instead, I tweak the activity and set Fisher up for success. It is not the learner’s fault for continually getting something wrong, it is mine as the teacher.
- Have fun
If we are not having fun then there is no point in training.
Scientifically outdated dog training beliefs told us that we need to be “the boss.” Our dogs must do what we ask whether they want to or not. There is no better way to ruin the relationship with your dog. Instead, I focus on cooperation.
Don’t get me wrong. There are certain things that must be done whether Fisher likes them or not. He needs to have medication put in his ear to treat his ear infection. We both prefer that this process is an enjoyable one, but time to train the cooperative process before an infection occurred was not on my side. That is a future goal. In the meantime, Fisher’s health is more important than his ability to choose to take part in receiving his ear medication.
Creating a conversation
Instead of using a command where I am communicating to Fisher that he must obey “or else” I give him the choice to participate. That changes the activity from a demand to a conversation. “Are you ready to train with me? Are you mentally in a good place to learn something new?” If Fisher tells me the answer is “no” by losing focus, struggling with the activity, or it looks like he is not having fun, we end the activity and play.
I evaluate what went wrong as we play. Maybe I did not give him enough time to acclimate to a new environment. Maybe there are too many distractions. Maybe the activity needs to be broken down into smaller steps that are easier for him to understand. Maybe I am expecting too much.
Fisher opting out of training is data. It gives me the opportunity to alter the scenario so that he can be successful and we can have fun together. Doing so builds both our training and personal relationships and gives me the confidence that he will want to train with me in the future. Fisher is not my subordinate, we are a team.