Before you begin trying to modify any behavioural issues you need to establish a development baseline in order to ensure that you afford your dog the best chance of success. To this end I have developed the PERFECT method of setting a solid foundation to enable behavioural modification success. This method will allow you to set, manage and get into the right mindset to deliver the development program whilst ensuring that the training you do deploy not only gets the results you want but is also rewarding for both you and your dog.
The acronym PERFECT stands for: –
Prepared: Ensure that the training environment is safe and distraction free or distraction controlled. Set realistic objectives. Set the training duration. Ensure that any program maintains the dog under its reactivity threshold. Finally, ensure you have the rewards in place that you know will resonate with your dog. If the behaviour you want is competing with behaviour your dog prefers then you will need to combat this with something that incentivizes your dog to focus on you.
Energy (Eyes on you): It is vital that your dog is focused on you therefore if it is amped up or like a coiled spring before you begin training then you are going to struggle to achieve success. It is always recommended you allow your dog to expend some energy via play or a walk before you begin.
Your energy is also important as dogs are very energy sensitive and we need to ensure that we are calm and assertive and deploy the 5 Cs (calm, confident, controlled, consistent and concise) in order to ensure that we can resonate with your dog. Again, it will be problematic if you and your dog have mismatched energies and your dog’s focus is not on your instruction but moreover your emotion. Bear in mind dogs are expert people readers and can almost telepathically read our emotions and intent. We need to be acutely cognisant of this.
Your dog should also be incentivized to look at you as its default position because if it is not looking at you how can you teach it?
Rewarding: Basically, you need to understand from your dog’s perspective why it should respond in the way you want. You will need to satisfy the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question and ensure that your reward is more appealing than other temptations that may be around. If you view this as currency then sometimes you will need to pay $1 and other times, $5 to get the focus on you.
Focused: Eye contact is crucial. Ensure that not only your dog’s eyes are on you but your eyes are on it. You will be surprised how well you will get to know your dog via observation. Not only this, if your attention does wander, your dog will pick up on this and do likewise.
Engaging: You need your dog to want to take notice of you therefore your tone and actions need to be interesting and exciting if you want to incentivise action, or calm but firm if you want to show disapproval. A quick note on showing disapproval. Positive reinforcement training does not mean that you cannot let your dog know that you don’t approve, especially when it comes to negative behaviour modifying, as that would be ridiculous. In the dog world dogs will create space (turn their head away, move away etc) when they do not approve. We can replicate this via what I call dynamic silence. Basically, although this may seem a bit counter-intuitive, try not to verbally correct your dog (by saying stop or no etc (unless of course you have to for control or safety reasons), but instead stand still, look into the distance and say nothing. If your dog is focused on you, as it should be, then it will try and appease you, as dogs don’t like silence, by going through its appeasement repertoire (sitting, giving a paw etc – all unrequested by you). After a few seconds give your dog a sit (or lie down) command and, when it complies, give it plenty of praise and, if appropriate, a treat. You are now back in control and can progress accordingly.
If your dog is not focusing on you then you can always turn your back, create distance and still refrain from any verbal engagement with your dog. Hopefully, your dog will not like the distance you are creating, or will get curious, and come over to you. If so, get your dog to sit (I call this a compliance sit) then reward it and re-engage.
You will also want to ensure that your body language is calm, assertive and congruent with your verbal delivery as any mixed signals from you will confuse your dog and lessen the strength of the engagement between you both.
Finally, don’t try to do too much too soon and potentially confuse or frustrate your dog. Adopt the KISS (Keep It Session Simple) approach to all things training. The best training successes are when the response elements have been broken down into small steps and built up slowly piece by piece. Trying to do everything at once, or too quickly, rarely works and will no doubt just leave both you and your dog tired and frustrated.
Confident: It is human nature to err on the side of caution and, as such, we tend to focus on negative outcomes by default. Normally this would serve us well but when it comes to dog training it is counter-productive. As we know dogs are super intuitive and can sense things at an almost telepathic level which can allow fear transference to occur whereby your dog is on alert because you are on alert. We tense up, tighten the lead, or change our behaviour, no doubt in a very small, almost subliminal, way, because we are concerned that something may go wrong and we are readying ourselves from the inevitable. Unfortunately, if we do this then we are in danger of creating the actual issue/conflict and allowing our prophecy to materialise. Dogs can also smell the chemical changes in your body and smell your fear or emotional change. It can become an ever-decreasing circle. To combat this you should keep your body language loose and relaxed as much as possible and stick to the 5 Cs. It can be hard at times but if you can maintain the calm assertiveness that we know dogs respond to then the success of your training endeavours will benefit greatly.
Timing: This element is key to your success. More often than not you will wish to ‘mark’ the good behaviour as soon as it occurs but in others, such as unrelenting barking or reactivity, you will need to pre-empt the behaviour and mark/reward (then redirect) the undesired behaviour just as your dog is looking to initiate it. In instruction led behaviours you will also want to mark (tell your dog it has done well) straight away but eventually delay, if not remove, the treat giving element.
The timing element may sound like a bit of a minefield but it is not really. If you can remember that ‘reactive’ behaviour should always be pre-empted and redirected and request (instruction led) behaviour should be rewarded after it has been given.