Positive Training Basics

People watch me train dogs and they think it looks pretty easy. I take that as a compliment. If you’re doing it right, it should look easy. It flows, it’s fun, it’s seemingly quick. In the past few months, I’ve been working closely with a large group of folks, trying to impart some basic concepts about positive dog training. Connecting with such a variety of folks has emphasized three foundational concepts for me.

Safe relationships

Positive training is first and foremost about cultivating a positive relationship. The old adage that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care is true! Even the most defensive of humans begin opening up when given respect and encouragement.

With dogs this is also true in the sense that ability to learn to wrapped up with their sense of security. A fearful dog may behave “less” (i.e. do the minimum required to stay out of trouble). However in comparison to a confident dog experiencing freedom from fear or intimidation, their learning is very obviously stunted.

Play is powerful

Another important concept adults tend to take for granted is that Play is Powerful! One of the classes I’m teaching starts off with an activity wherein human students pretend to be dogs. What sounds like a very pointless exercise has brought out the silly in even the most stoic of personalities. Everyone laughs when we play this game. And it turns out laughing, or having fun, is critical to learning.

Watch one dog play group and this concept becomes a no-brainer. Dogs love to play, and for shelter dogs they play to live. Play keeps dogs healthy and sane, even when the rest of their life sucks. There’s plenty of learning going on between a group of unfamiliar dogs romping around together. A side-eye, a back offering, a wide berth, a pair of dogs mirroring. There’s a lot of communication going on between the dogs about what is appropriate and what is not. They are their best teachers and play groups are the best classrooms.

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Words matter

Although our words are nonsense to dogs until we assign meaning to them, our words are nonetheless important. Humans, if not obsessed with words, are certainly greatly influenced by them. Words influence our emotions, which are the foundation of our thoughts, which turn into our actions. There is a canyon-sized difference between negative self-talk and positive self-talk. The latter leads to emotional peace, encouraging thought patterns, and kind actions. It’s hard to be a good teacher or student without peace, encouragement and kindness.

Our words matter to dogs. It’s all mostly background noise to them, save for the few words that mean good or bad things are about to happen. But our words matter because they influence how we teach and lead them. I don’t have to be mean or nasty to get good manners from my dog. I don’t have to be harsh or threatening to prevent my dog from embarrassing me. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The kinder, more compassionate my self-talk, the more creative and compliant of a dog I’ve been able to cultivate. Words matter because they shape how we show up for others – humans and animals alike.

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