At Best Behaviour Dog Training, we strive to provide ethical, effective, positive training for dogs and humans alike. We are proud to know that many of you chose us specifically because of this and are also passionate about training your dogs in the kindest way possible. That’s why we wanted to write this blog on mindfulness in dog training – because we know, even as qualified and experienced trainers, that it can be difficult to break some of our very human habits that might impact on our dogs’ ability to learn and enjoy their training.
Dogs are sensitive creatures, although they can sometimes be very stoic about things, and they communicate heavily by body language; making them all-too-aware of ours (while we are often oblivious!). As a domestic species, dogs are head and shoulders above the rest in the degree to which they have adapted to life with humans and their abilities to understand us – it is for this reason that dogs very often pick up on how we’re feeling, even when we’re not intentionally directing those feelings towards them. Mindfulness in dog training, then, is important to ensure we don’t have an unintended effect on our dog’s emotional state. It’s pretty good for us, too!
Below are just a few ways you can change be mindful in how you approach training with your dog to ensure you both get the most out of the experience.
See Mistakes (or “Bad Behaviour”) Differently
Some common unwanted feelings that can arise during a training session or walk with our dogs include feelings of frustration, feeling hurt after being “rejected” or ignored, feeling annoyed or even feeling resentful. It’s always a shame when these feelings take over and influence our actions, because it often leads to conflict with our dogs.
These feelings are normal human emotions and we’re not here to tell you that you’re bad for feeling them – we are, in fact, humans! However, they’re not helpful when we’re training our dogs and so it’s important that we don’t let them influence our actions and take over how we perceive our dogs’ behaviour.
There are two stages to reframing unwanted behaviour from our dogs: the first is to realise that, any time your dog doesn’t do what we hoped or expected them to do, a mistake has occurred. For example, if you’ve let your dog off the lead and they’re not recalling today, then we know an error in judgment has been made on our end. Perhaps the environment is too distracting or we unclipped the lead without having done enough of the important work needed to train a reliable recall. It’s annoying in the moment, for sure, but it happens.
The second step is to realise that when these things happen, it teaches us something valuable – our dogs’ behaviour is information. If you let your dog off the lead in the woods and they ignored you calling them for 20 minutes, this is just information that tells us the woods are very exciting and it’s too much to expect your dog to respond reliably in that environment at this point in their training.
Once we understand that unwanted behaviour is a simple mistake and that those mistakes give us information we can act on, we can take a deep breath and start to figure out what to do next.
We’ve mentioned already that feeling frustrated is a normal human emotion – but it does nothing to improve our training and can even be quite detrimental. Our dogs are very perceptive and if we use a cross tone of voice or our body language shifts, there is a strong possibility that they will notice. This can sour the whole experience – it could cause certain cues we use (e.g. our recall cues) to have bad associations for our dogs. It can even be punishing for our dogs: think about how it feels when you’re expecting something really good to happen and then it doesn’t. This is rarely a neutral experience and usually feels quite bad – the same is true for our dogs. If we call them and it takes them a while to come back and then, when they reach us, we give them the cold shoulder or even sound and appear cross? That can be a very upsetting experience for our dogs and make them even less likely to come when called next time. Equally, if we’re trying to train a specific behaviour and our dog gets it wrong, our frustration can massively knock their confidence and put them off trying in the future – this is a really tragic position to be in.
This is why it’s so important that we reframe what a mistake means in training, so we can manage our emotions and ensure they don’t undo our training or damage our relationships with our dogs. Even if you’re feeling livid that your dog has ignored you for 10 minutes, you need to let them know you’re pleased to see them when they get back. Let go of the frustration, give your dog a cuddle and try to enjoy the remainder of the walk – you and your dog are not the only ones to have been in this position and as long as your dog is safely back with you, you might as well relax and look at what to do better next time once you’re feeling calmer. If you’ve been training a behaviour and it was all going well until your dog suddenly did the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter – say oh well, reward them for the effort and you and your instructor can look at what to change next time to help your dog get it right!
Be Mindful of Your Dog’s Feelings/Comfort
Just like us, our dogs have “off days.” The difference is that our dogs can’t tell us if they’re feeling a bit rough that day – if they’re not obviously sick, then the only symptom we can perceive is a change in their behaviour. If your find that your dog is a bit more frantic today, less able to focus or is generally “playing up” for no apparent reason, it’s worth considering that they might be feeling a bit out of sorts. The kindest and most effective thing we can do on days when our dogs are struggling is to make things easier for them – our dogs need our support in these moments. Go back a stage or three to when you were first teaching them whatever it is they’re not managing today, so you can both still have an enjoyable and successful day.
Our dogs’ comfort is also something we need to be considerate of. Many dogs are walked in ill-fitting harness, headcollars or other pieces of equipment that can cause them discomfort. These things lead to bad associations, stress, frustration and even pain. Ensure you always check the fit of your dog’s harness and don’t use any equipment that tightens when the dog moves or is advertised as “anti-pull.” These bits of kits use our dogs’ discomfort to discourage behaviours like lead pulling and this can mask a gap in their training and lead to dogs who, while they may not be pulling on the lead, are feeling unhappy and frustrated. This often presents itself elsewhere down the line, such as the dog starting to become reactive towards other dogs because their presence is a precursor to feeling discomfort caused by the “anti-pull” harness, headcollar or neck collar.
Ensuring our dogs are comfortable and taking their emotions and health into consideration are great ways to help us work in harmony with our dogs and support them when they need it, rather than constantly fighting against these things and creating an unpleasant situation for both dog and handler.
Set Them Up for Success
This is probably THE biggest rule of ethical, effective dog training. Our dogs don’t magically know what we want them to do until we have taken the time to teach them. That means it’s OUR job to get the behaviours happening in the first place, by arranging the environment and managing our dogs so that the desired behaviour is the easiest option possible. We talked above about how making mistakes which we humans react to can knock our dogs’ confidence – they can also slow down learning and teach our dogs things we weren’t trying to teach them. Mistakes will occasionally happen because neither us nor our dogs are perfect, but we know now that mistakes are moments we can learn from.
Take the failed recall for example – if you let your dog off the lead in the woods and they ignore you, you know that the environment is too much right now for your dog to be able to reliably recall. Next time to go to the woods and want to practice recall, you might practice on a long line or even on your regular walking lead. Having a lead or long line on your dog means they won’t be able to chase after wildlife or run up to the dog that appeared from around the corner if they get distracted and therefore won’t build a reinforcement history for the behaviour of running off. You don’t need to get cross or worried because your dog is on a lead and under control, you can simply move away from the distraction or gather up the long line and work at a closer distance to your dog.
Keeping the lead on your dog is setting them up to be successful – this simply management tool makes it impossible for them to practice unwanted behaviour and therefore much easier to make the right choice and respond to your recall cue.
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