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Human Anxiety and Dog training

Continuing with the topic of human anxiety and the ways our dogs interpret this. We find that even in training, it can cause us so many problems. Most often, we blame the problems on our dog. When training to compete at the highest level, we cannot afford to show anger nor anxiety, but that sounds easier said than done.

First, we must recognise that we are indeed anxious and understand why. Only if we can see what happens to us, are we able to try to control ourselves. In addition, we must try to understand how our dog is interpreting this, if we are to have any chance of training successfully.

Take as an example, making your dog stay. The old-fashioned method was to put a dog into a sit on your left side and try to walk away by moving off on your right leg first, giving the command STAY. Normally when using the Heel command, you set off forward using your left leg first.

Gradually as you try moving further away, you hope your dog remains. Occasionally you return to your dog to praise it for staying. The basic idea is to teach your dog that when you give the command STAY you will ALWAYS return to your dog. This is unlike the WAIT command where you will be asking your dog to do something else, like the COME command. Seems simple enough, but not through the eyes of your dog.

One of the problems of old fashioned training schedules is they first teach heel on lead. This is effectively teaching the dog to remain by the handler’s side and always pulling it back if it moves away. Also, look at handlers in any class; they all keep their dogs next to them. This in effect is indoctrinating the dog always to be by your side.

If a handler now tries to teach the dog to sit and stay, the likelihood is that it will move with them as they walk away. The next attempt only makes the handler anxious because they are uncertain if the dog will remain. Their only hope is that if the dog does move they are close enough to repeat the command.

Again, seen from a dog’s view, if the handler attempts to walk further away, the more the dog will want to be with them. The handler then rushes back, grabbing hold of their dog, often forcing it back into the Sit or into the down position. This is scary for the dog as to why it happened. It has no idea what it did wrong.

Dogs learn by repetition so there is only one-way to train a dog and that is for it to complete the exercise every time, gaining praise and a reward whether it is a toy or food treat. Based on dogs normal rules, if it likes doing something for some reason, it will do it again. If it does not like it, then it will not.

Using scolding, manhandling as well as shouting at the dog, only increases the handler’s anxiety that the dog will fail. The dog reads that there is a scary problem and it will react in varying ways. We believe that it needs at least five successes to counter each failure. If in training there are more failures than successes then logically, the dog is more likely to get it wrong the next time.

We need to look at each training exercise with an understanding of what can go wrong and be able to act appropriately to counter them. The aim is to manipulate each exercise so the dog will not make a mistake, whilst receiving praise and rewards. Such signs of approval only encourage it to repeat the exercise correctly each time. The second item is to stop the handler being anxious by knowing, that their dog will not fail.

The simple way to teach a STAY or even the WAIT command is for someone to kneel down behind the dog and just lightly hold the dog’s collar so it cannot move. As the handler moves away, they give the Command to Stay or wait. The dog cannot move or if it tries, it understands it is tethered and has to remain. The handler then comes back all smiles, lots of fuss and treats so the dog has completed the first exercise correctly. This the handler repeats until the holder of the dog’s collar can feel that the dog is not trying to pull away though aware that they are still there.

Gradually the holder lightly removes their fingers from the collar, yet poised to return them if there is the slightest attempt to move. As all the handler is doing is going away and coming back with praise etc, the dog is learning they always return, yet cannot move because of the holder.

As the dog ceases any attempt to move, the holder can very gently release it and then move backwards so it is free, even if using a slack safety line, just in case.

After completing many successful attempts using the holder to restrain the dog, it is possible to move onto only needing to stand behind it. Eventually they do not even need to be present. This exercise only takes minutes to teach. It is then up to the handler to practice at home until certain, the dog is never going to move.

If the handler does not have someone to hold the dog, they can just tie it up to something, then walk away and return. A dog knows when it is restricted and has to stay. For safety, this is the right thing to do if your dog must wait for you outside the shops. To take this a little further if in an emergency, you can slide the lead under the dog’s bottom giving it the feeling of attached to something, when it is not.

Any of the dogs I have here with me when I have a training class, I clip their leads to the fence. They quickly learn to lie down and wait for me to give them treats on my return. They watch the training sessions and at times, join in when I use any of them to demonstrate an exercise.

Indoctrinating a dog always to remain near the handler does not help teach those exercises conducted at a distance, like stays or searching when the dog can actually be out of sight. It is for this reason we have to examine all exercises for potential failures by a dog and understand why. In addition, the handler must always be aware that on seeing such failures, their resulting anxious reactions, as interpreted by their dog, will only make things worse.

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