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I've been thinking lately about the word "command". This is a term that is used across the dog training world to tell your dog what to do. It most of our training methods we don't use commands as we teach the owners how to communicate with their dog using a leash and body language for 30 days after training to help build a foundation for years to come. After the 30 days, the owners can use commands on top of what we have already taught them. I don't look at giving commands as a bad thing to do, I just feel that we have humanized our dogs so much that I hear owners have running conversations with their dogs like they are kids.
Now let's look at the word "command" and what it means. Dictionary.com defines it as:
1. to direct with specific authority or prerogative; order: The captain commanded his men to attack.
2. to require authoritatively; demand:
3. to have or exercise authority or control over; be master of; have at one's bidding or disposal:
These are pretty strong words if you relate them to the dog world. I don't like the idea of the slave/master relationship, we have "Educator" on the back of our shirts, to me a teacher-student relationship is a better way to go. Teachers don't command their students when teaching math they "instruct" and maybe that's the word we as dog trainers need to utilize. There has been on-going research to debunk the idea that dogs have a dominant-submissive type social structure yet we use "commands" to get our dogs to do what we want. As research continues "commands" will continue as a way to communicate with our dogs and that term is directly related to an authority-inferior type relationship. We can't have it both ways, so where do we go from here?
I think it's fair to say when we see a dog with their tail tucked between their legs we know that dog is scared and/or nervous. Most often those dogs are quite sensitive to various sounds and movements. What I don't think most owners are aware of is that dogs that lunge or are aggressive are more sensitive than the scared dogs. This sensitivity has just manifested itself to look differently than the scared dog. By lunging a dog has learned they can create a lot of space around themselves which in turn makes them feel comfortable. The dog that lunges can by hyper sensitive to anyone approaching their space which turns into a big loud display to make themselves look bigger and more intimidating. Instead of the loud display the nervous and scared dog will often use "flight" as their defense to create space to make themselves feel better. In both cases, the dogs feel they must make a decision because it has worked for them at some time in the past. Once they figure out if they keep repeating the process they get what they want, then that behavior can turn into an "auto-pilot" reaction.
If either of these cases sounds like a dog you have it's important to look at your dog's day through their eyes, yes all 24 hours! It might give you a better idea of how and why they think. With dogs that are very sensitive I focus on calming activities like massage, walks, treadmill, or leash handling without commands. To me, the quieter you communicate with a dog like this the better the relationship can become as it's more primal. When dogs communicate there are no commands or treats, just intensity, body language, and eye contact. Go back to working with your dog's instincts and you will end up with a dog that feels more comfortable with their environment.
I remember when I first started out as a trainer it seemed like the majority of the calls I was getting from clients had to do with separation anxiety. You know what it looks like, your dog follows you around the house not wanting you to get out of sight and some cases get pretty extreme. I've heard of people sitting on the couch at night and they get up to go to the bathroom and their dog follows them the entire way right into the bathroom with them. If the owner shut the door to keep them out the dog would scratch and claw at the door, I can't imagine living like that. My strategy then was to make sure the dog got plenty of exercise to tire them out and to make sure the dog was walked correctly.
Fast forward about 10 years and I now understand the importance of impulse control. This is a "game changer" in my mind, this will put many different aspects of your relationship with your dog into one training session from control to relaxation to reward. This is an excellent exercise for dogs that lunge, get excited by touch, or just have a hard time sitting still. We now teach impulse control to all of our training clients and some of it's successes have been substantial. One recent case was an owner who had their dog follow her around the house from the basement to the top floor of the house. After just 2 weeks of doing this exercise once a day (only 15-30 minutes a time), the dog now stays on the main level of the house while the owner can go to the basement. These are amazing results that can be duplicated with just a little bit of work on your end.
Below is a link to an Impulse Control video with a dog named Brady that I trained last fall. This is the first time Brady had experienced a session like this and the video has not been edited. Practice this exercise with your dog at home for 2 weeks, I think you will be quite happy with the results.
Importance of Down Time
Often times we see dogs that are too over-stimulated which can manifest itself in seeing a dog that is hyper. Most owners will think that dog will need more exercise when in actuality that dog needs the opposite, more down time. Some dogs have the ability to regulate themselves while some do not and that's where we step in. For the dogs that can't regulate we will take the time put the dog in a crate or a kennel so they have the chance to rest their brain and body. Think of a young toddler that doesn't get enough sleep or misses nap time, they can be very difficult to deal with. If you have a dog that seems hyper or maybe a new puppy, down time is going to be your best friend. Go ahead and take your dog for a walk, play with them, or have a training session with them but keep it somewhere between 15 - 30 minutes. After the session put your dog in a crate or tether them to something in the house where they can get some much needed rest. Give them a 1-2 hours to rest and repeat the process again. At the end of the day you will have created a structure that your dog will love!
Hugging your dog
I read a recent article that says hugging your dog may be good for you but not for your dog. In my opinion hugging your dog forces your dog into making a decision that she doesn't want to make, depending on the relationship you have with your dog. When I see pictures of dogs that have just been adopted and you see the entire family all hugging the dog at once it makes me cringe. The dog does not know these people well and they are already invading her personal space. The dog on the right is clearly communicating that she is uncomfortable, eyes have a lot of concern and the ears are back. The fact is dogs don't hug each other, they may snuggle but I haven't seen many give hugs. What appears as a hug to us in the picture, can be communicated to the dog as being mounted and this can cause major problems.
Behavior Vs. Obedience
Obedience teaches your dog what to do, Behavior teaches your dog how to be. WOW! That's a pretty powerful statement when it comes to dog training. 99.9% Of dog owners know how to teach their dog to sit, but what most people don't realize is that when you teach a dog to sit, you aren't actually changing their state of mind. I like to influence a dog's state of mind with calmness during training. I focus primarily on knowing a dog's body language, what they are saying to me and knowing how to react to it. For instance, if you have an aggressive dog and you tell him to "sit" when another dog is near it doesn't mean that your dog still doesn't want to attack. Body position doesn't dictate state of mind, state of mind dictates body position. So how do we establish a calm state of mind? By practicing calm activities such as a walk, impulse control, or leash handling. We allow the dog's mind to work in a way it was supposed to, with instincts. Try this, the next time your dog misbehaves make a correction sound and move towards your dog with confidence, what does your dog do? Does he avoid you? Does he sit? Does he walk away? Is he depending on a command to help him get through the situation. I've been around groups of dogs for 10+ years and I have yet to hear a dog say "good boy" or "sit". They use their body language and eye contact to communicate. It's their instincts that help dogs get through the day and I enjoy working with those instincts, I want to learn their language and communicate with them. I feel that I can gain more trust and respect working with an animal on an instinctual level and not on an intellectual level.