Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

by | Dec 30, 2022

This is a time to celebrate as we move forward to a new year: the usual taking stock of where we have travelled from, and where we are right now. Some moments to dream forwards to where we would like to be. The forest of “shoulds” cause us to stray from our own ethos; from the life that we want to provide for our dogs and to live alongside them.

We have travelled a long way from the days of “this is how you train a dog to [insert choices here …]” from walk to heel, come, crate, sit, bed, down, behave, not jump up, retrieve, jump, weave. Yep, everything has a recipe. Described as perfect fixes, or quick results, or utterly reliable, or dog-friendly,  or absolutely guaranteed. The descriptions covered the recipe but avoided any close inspection into the ethos underlying the branded solutions.

starling upside down feeding

Recognise when something makes you feels uncomfortable. 

But what if it made you feel uncomfortable? What if your trust pilot switched on a warning hazard? Do you still follow the recipe because you are desperate for a solution? Would your time be wasted if you didn’t follow it perfectly? Yes, quite probably. Recipes are selective elements of a culture or ethos and if your ethos does not align, it would not matter that you followed the recipe with utter dedication; the results would be a failure because of the dissonance between your ethos and that of the recipe creator. I would strongly doubt that they even had an ethos at all.

I can give you a recipe for loose lead walking: it is based on my ethos, but if yours is not aligned then the recipe is a time waster. You can cherry pick and hope it works but without an underlying connection it is just bits and pieces cobbled together.

What is Your Ethos?

I like this definition:

the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period

Our ethos can be influenced by our background, the society we live in and our experiences. It’s useful to be mindful of the fact that a lot of what we think about living with dogs comes from outside of the partnership: from past experiences, from self-styled “experts,” from cultural norms, from popular media. Make a list of the “shoulds” you’ve acquired – even those backed by science – and assess whether they pass your trust pilot?

Experience changes our ethos as we learn more and realise that instead of being trapped in a single pathway, there are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

Once we taught a dog to sit in a particular way but when we learned more we realised that we could find other ways that aligned with our ethos. If the current recipe did not suit, we had a choice to swallow it, apply it, and buy more toys as an apology to the dog; or walk away.

My dogs today have my dogs of those days to thank that they encouraged me to walk away.

If the promised outcome is so very important to your future then use your intellect, imagination and creativity to find other ways to get there.

Learning to be guided by our ethos is about taking the time to listen before jumping and being responsible for the choices we make on behalf of our dogs.

Zip nearly asleep

Find your ethos:

This is the time of year when hard questions can be asked, but you can also do this on a regular schedule. New notebook, new questions, consider each answer and revisit regularly.

  1. Why do you share your life with dogs?
  2. What point do you say “no, not acceptable; no not good enough”?
  3. (If applicable) Why do you want to help, teach, support, other people with dogs?
  4. What do you think your dogs’ consider most important to them?

Look for the sound evidence of this and do not make assumptions – the evidence is there in front of us, but often sitting on the same bench as our biases.

I like to look at each day and for each individual (as it is easy with multiple dogs to regard them as a whole) ask:

  1. What activities, event, situations today have given your dog or your partnership a chance to:

thrive, experience delight, enjoy contentment?

  1. What may have caused them stress?
  2. What made them feel valued?
  3. What did they put up with because it is you that asked?
starling upside down feeding

My ethos

My trust pilot is called Frank.

  1. Why do you share your life with dogs?
    I am very comfortable with dogs. The lifestyle my dogs can enjoy and thrive in is also suitable for me.
  1. What point do you say “no, not acceptable; no not good enough”?
    Anything likely to cause my dogs confusion or uncertainty, or break the connection I have with my dogs.
  1. What do you think your dog considers most important to them ?
    considers food, comfort and company top of her list. When either of these are on offer she will forego current, even if enjoyable, activities.
    Zip needs security, approval and control over her environment as top priorities. She is the self-appointed carer of the others and oversees their personal routines with ear and face washing. These are the conditions in which she can relax, sleep well and be herself.
    Todd is always attracted to stimulating events or situations. Sleeps on concrete, seeks employment above all else. He has self-appointed daily tasks: highest priority are the Man-Rounds of the Garden.

The group are well connected within themselves and thrive when doing stuff together. These are not always adventures, but the simply daily activities of eating together, indulging in pre-wash duties for the dishwasher, chasing birds off the garden, squeaking toys. They play in pairs most days, wrestling, running, teasing with Best Toy. Contentment will occur when I am settled and engaged and they can sprawl around and be instantly ready for a change in activity. Stress is triggered by uncertain noises or delivery guys launching cardboard bombs. They liked the Covid protocols.

This is my evidence, but maybe that last one is a tiny bit biased.

They put up with grooming, some finding more pleasure than others; they put up with being left behind and prefer to sit in the car than be left at home. Even Zip these days who hid when she realised car travel was imminent.

Their greatest valued moments are our individual learning time. The others are nearby and spectating, but this is Their Moment to do stuff, be the focus. This is evident in their instant recognition of my change in mood, the place this happens, the food, the toys, the energy that predicts Precious Hour has started. The order is always fixed by the one least likely to benefit from the anticipation, that is Zip. The others relish their waiting and adding the odd comment.

There will be a time when the daily routines do not give them all that they need. They will mature and their pleasures will change. Even in the days when a Show was considered a chance to thrive, it was usually the contentment of being car-bound with me for several hours. Did I want to be car-bound? Am I projecting my own preferences? No, this was my compromise to ensure they were in their best place to be able to compete, demonstrate, or socialise. I usually took a good book.

When I was 8 I would spend many a full Sunday afternoon with my father in his workshop. Sweeping wood shavings was the only task I was permitted; all other tools were likely to take my fingers off if not kill me. I was allowed to watch and ask all sorts of questions. I know how a concealed dovetail joint is made; I also know why the sunset is pink and how electricity gets down the wires. The woodworking activity was not the point: I was not learning to be a cabinet maker, but I was discovering and my father was discovering me. We shared time together.

Let your ethos thrive

Your ethos can only grow when you give it plenty to feed it. It needs regular exercise to be questioned, stretched, measured, stood up against and given adventures to experience. It needs to know where it will be more comfortable, most stimulated and secure. When you meet your ethos and get to know it well, no recipe will have the previous appeal. You will know what will suit, what to bypass, and what to relish.

Frank is a trustworthy friend.

starling upside down feeding

Key Reading

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

The Answers Await Discovery

The idea that we’re responsible for our dogs’ learning might well seem strange when we consider how we conceptualise “training:”

Location is Their Cue

We begin teaching the dog to go to a target, such as a mat or platform and in this process our focus is on the outcome – the dog can place feet on the object or settle down. But at the same time this learning is happening the dog is also noting the location: where this is happening in this room, in the house, relative to the food-machine (you).

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

A Family of Multiple Dogs

Another addition is not just an extra bed and bowl. It is important to build a home that is healthy, content and well-balanced.

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

Back to Basics?

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

Play Health Check

When we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced?

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

Top Training

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Cue Seeking

Being an active learner and seeking opportunities for more rewards

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

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