Working at your dog’s level

Dennis Fehling and his friend Meika

How many times have you heard or even said to yourself that “my dog always does it great in class or she is always perfect at home”? This is actually a very common thing and often mistaken for a dog being “stubborn” or “stupid” or my favorite “dominant”.  A couple of years ago I was working with a client at a park in our area when we saw a woman come into the park with a beautiful  Chesapeake bay retriever.  She brought her dog up to the gate and demanded a sit which the dog had no intentions of doing and was at this point incapable of even the most basic of commands due to his excitement level.  We also noticed a very large shock collar on her dog(Argggggggg).  There were probably 20 or more dogs in the area at the time so alot was going on. 


 She proceeded to ask the dog for a sit again and again with each time the dog not complying with her demands and getting shocked.  You are probably asking yourself why I did not intervene?  Great question.  I have been known to go a bit overboard when it comes to defending dogs who are being abused and felt that maybe by my actions and her seeing the dog we were working with doing everything we asked of her maybe just maybe she might catch on.  Well, she did not and finally gave in and opened the gate to the park.   Her dog ran as fast away from her as he possible could and went and hid in the bushes and pretty much shut down.  Oh I forgot to mention that when the woman finally gave up she kicked her dog in the head for good measure probably more out of frustration and the expense of the useless shock collar that clearly did not work.  We all finally said something to her but that is for another story.

The point of this story and this blog is to show that there are times when your dog  just can’t do what you are asking them to do, basically over their level due to many different things like the environment, other dogs, strange people the list goes on and on.  Lets look at some of the positive things first before judging her too badly.  The first thing I do have to commend her for is that at least she is trying to get her dog out for exercise and to socialize him at least in her mind.  The second thing I want to give her the benefit of the doubt is that she was told by a force based trainer that this is what she needed to do if she wanted her dog to listen to her.  She was given bad information and trusted what this trainer told her to do.  This kind of bad information is given to many well meaning people all over the world.  Some do it while others know that something is just not right and seek another way of  training their dogs. 

Now lets look at how this could have been done differently and more positively

When I say working at your dogs level I mean what is your dog capable of doing at any given moment in time.  How many times do you work on your sits outside of a training class in different situations and environments? While it may be possible to get your dog to sit at home where it is quiet, it may be another story when you are downtown or at a dog park where there is so much going on that your dog  just can’t do it.  I can tell you that your dog is not being stubborn, dominant or willful they are just being expected to do something that is not at their level yet.  Imagine if you were afraid of speaking in public.  This can be a very frightening thing for most people and unless you have practised you might not do as well as if you had been prepared.  You could have taken a course on public speaking where you are coached and taught all of the little things that can make it less scary like speaking to an audience of one then two then three and so on until you are comfortable speaking to a larger audience. 

Working at my dog's level

This is how we can prepare our dogs to be more comfortable in exciting situations.  We start at a level where they are comfortable.  All dogs are different where one might be the kind of dog where nothing bothers them.  We  have seen these happy go lucky dogs who seem to go through life without a care in the world and thrive on challenges. Then there are those dogs who just need a little more time to adjust and prepare for the task at hand.  I would recommend that you find a positive reinforcement based training class so your dog actually enjoys the training instead of dreading it.  Start slow with your dog and gradually increase the level of the three d’s Distance, Duration and Distractions.  Let me explain just how important these are.  I am going to go back to the shock collar woman to explain the three D’s.  She could have made it easier for her dog by by increasing the distance to the gate and all that was going on.  She might have tried backing off ten feet and then trying again to get her dog to sit.  If that did not work then try backing off a few more feet.  I know when I take my dogs to the park I always start off with a wait in the car so I can safely get their leash on then I ask for a sit just to have them check in with me.  They get a treat and off we go.  On the way to the park I might ask for other things like sits, or hand targeting(touch).  I do these things just to get my dogs prepared so when I do need their attention it is not that big of a deal for them.   

Now lets look at the second of the three D’s Duration.  It is pretty hard to get your dog to stay for any length of time if you have not practised it then top it off by expecting them to do it when there is alot going on. Lets go  back to the woman at the gate.  She could have backed her dog away from the gate so she  could of at least gotten a sit then if she wanted her dog to stay she could have only asked for a one second stay instead of asking for more time then her dog was capable of(working at her dogs level) then her dog would have been successful and not punished for not being able to do what she wanted him to do.

Now for the last part of the three D’s Disatractions.  This is probably the hardest thing for our dogs.  after all look at what we have to compete with.  There are other dogs, squirrels, other people, noises, smells. We might not see or smell something but you can bet our dogs see or smell it long before we do.  Lets take one last look back at the woman at the gate.  There was so much going on at the gate, dogs, people, smells that the distractions were just too much for her dog.  She could have once again started farther back>distance< to give her dog a better chance of success at the sit.  She could have take him to a quieter area>Distractions< then try to get her dog to sit for the required amount of time she wanted>duration< thus making all of the above much easier for her dog.  I like to think of the three D’s as dials on a radio.  If you turn up the volume on one you have to turn down the volume on the others to make it easier for your dog.  If you are to close to the distraction then don’t expect too much time on the duration.

I hope that this gives you a little food for thought the next time you ask your dog to do something and they appear to just ignore you.  Look at what is going on around your dog and ask yourself ” how can I make this easier for my dog?” Can I take a step back and try again or can I increase the value of either the food reward, toy or praise.  Remember your dog is not trying to frustrate you they are just in their own way telling you that you are not working at their level.  Until next time remember to help your dog and you succeed by thinking about the three D’s and how you can make it easy on you and your dog. 

Dennis Fehling CPDT(KA)