I found myself watching a novice obedience class a few nights ago, and I wanted to cry. Don’t get me wrong, nothing awful was happening, no physical abuse, no harsh corrections, but so little joy… Watching most people plod along with their dogs connected to them by a leash but nothing else is like some macabre satire of what dog training ought to be.
If you watch 20 people train their dogs, you will immediately observe that there are two distinct groups who are essentially doing two completely different things: those who are going through the motions but their dogs are disconnected, flat, out of control. And those whose dogs are beautifully, magically, joyfully playing the game. Within each group you will see a variety of techniques and skill levels, the difference between them is something more fundamental…
Here is the secret that separates the two groups:
You cannot effectively teach your dog anything until you get him engaged and connected. Attentive, happy, excited, eager to learn, enthused. You need to make learning enjoyable. You must figure out what makes your dog excited and build an expectation that playing/training together is super fun. One of your very first responsibilities as an owner and trainer is to figure out how to induce joy for your pet, what combination of treats and toys and tone and luring and whacking and squealing and petting really lights them up; and if you cannot figure out a path to joy, you need to build one. You need a great attitude yourself. You need to make sessions short and fast. You need to tug and fetch and race and wrestle and play. You need to be willing to get on the floor, to run, to praise and cheer like a loon. You need to play with your dog many times each day at home and everywhere so that you have built this into your relationship. You need to teach your dog that looking at you is great, on its own, and that it is the key that will unlock the best and most rewarding game of all. Only when you have built this reward base and tapped into attention and attitude can you really start worrying much about specific behaviors, and you will find they are so much easier to train when you and your dog have this core connection.
If you are dragging your dog around, pushing and pulling him into various positions, giving him commands that he ignores, you are not merely wasting your time, you are actually hurting your relationship. You are making your dog like you less. You are convincing your dog that you are a boring bully. You are inculcating resistance, lethargy, disinterest. Better to NOT train your dog than to keep slogging through these miserable sessions. Stop training immediately, and from now on any time you feel yourself starting to do this, stop! Go do something else. Come back when you are ready to be present, joyous, enthused, connected.
If you can get five beautiful seconds of your dog looking at you, ears perked and eyes bright, listening, eagerly trying to play the game with you, then you are genuinely training your dog. Tomorrow it will be ten seconds, then twenty… Now you have a partner, you can start dancing, start working on super-fast sits followed by a game. A step or two of perfect heeling, an eager down. Happy, happy chase recalls. Now you are working for several perfect minutes, increasing distance, duration, distraction, but never for a moment sacrificing attitude and relationship… Do this for a few months, and you will be amazed! You will have a dog that loves training with you, that has a fabulous attitude, and that can do all those behaviors you originally wanted.