When we train a dog it grows

by | Jun 21, 2019

Selfish training ?

I am as guilty as any trainer to use my skills to teach the dogs what I want them to learn. This is often orientated to my needs, what makes my life easier. Most clients reach out to a trainer for assistance in removing annoying behaviours. The focus is on making life more comfortable for the owners, or people who live alongside the dog.

Some of these things also benefit the dog – learning to run to me on a specific word, no matter what else is taking your interest, results in greater opportunities to explore and discover new worlds. I can teach this to 8 week old puppies. It means they get to explore the garden. It begins  with pairing food delivery, happening several times a day, with a call-up sound. For me this is the birdy whistling. Don’t know if I copied the locals birds or they mimic me!

This can progress to short walks into the neighbouring fields, and gradually as their confidence and reliability grows to hikes up the hill. This may take a couple of months or a couple of years.

It is an example of training where the benefit is mostly mine, and perhaps a benefit to them. Not all dogs want to leave home, explore new landscapes or climb mountains. That training gives us the options.

When we train a dog does it grow?

I’m not sure the pup, or later adult, actually grows directly from that training, but as a consequence to that training. The purpose is for management, not individual growth.

Gordons are not good at stopping. Certainly not when aroused, excited or multi-tasking. This means they crash into things regularly. Often this is me, but it can easily be a tree or another dog. I spent many, many hours teaching Merrick her platform training so that she could learn how to anticipate closing distances, change her momentum and slide into the perfect halt. One foot away from me. It took a few months during the critical developmental period.

Did it benefit her or me?

I think there was a direct benefit for me, much less bruising. A benefit for the other dogs, much less crashing. Would she have developed this skill anyway? Quite possibly but out of a need to avoid the pain and discomfort of collisions. The training benefit was an avoidance of potential harm, long term injury and an opening of greater opportunity – to run in orchards where trees no longer jump into her path.

She has certainly develop into a very athletic, self-aware dog, that has exceeded my expectations. All of her training on movement, balance, proprioception was centric to her personal development. I benefited from the process, she taught me many aspects of movement training and I can exhibit her in musical dressage competitions.

Most training starts from necessity. We could make a list of priorities from urgent: no biting the fingers that give you treats, to management: time for bed, in the car, stand still to put your leash on.

We will make a list of priorities that range from daily management to future potential – the off-the-sofa cue, the no-jump-I-am-carrying-a-cup-of-tea signal, standing with stillness whilst we let the horses pass by. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict, we build management training for the future opportunities and life together.

But does management training mean that the dog can grow? Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit? What is the difference? What do we teach that is purely of benefit to that individual?

I was messing around with Zip’s regular “do something for food” moments, training, and as I completed my log, I realised most of what she is learning is about management or a future sport behaviour. The play is usually orientated to “that which will be useful in the future”. We play with toys where I graduate towards bringing something to me – retrieve. But what she really, really, enjoyed was me bopping her on the nose with the soft, green football.

This began to morph towards tossing it at her and she bopped it back. Well who’d have guessed? Neither management nor freestyle. Just something that made us happy to do together.

I think she grew

She grew because she wasn’t trying to learn something, not trying to puzzle out what I wanted her to do, not a bit of counter conditioning for future events, but pure pleasure enjoyed because it was enjoyable.

She does many things that she enjoys and I can only spectate: leaping the tall grass around the perimeter of the field, swearing at the rams (who poke their heads through our fence). She can only spectate many things that I enjoy, watching TV, eating, talking! 

But I also want to find activities, opportunities to learn (a measurable change in behaviour) that means she grows, develops who she is in herself. That comes from a richness of things we do together, doing what she does a little better, stronger, faster each day. Developing in such a way that her growth means the things that used to worry her are now cool. She rests more, is less stressed by everyday irritations. She learns to find “flow”:

If training involves my list of priorities, then I want to be able to find what her list of priorities would be – what would she like to learn? It is easy to say she enjoys everything she learns because we set up learning to be a pleasure. We could also say the dog “enjoys” having a collar or harness because that represents the start of an activity they enjoy, but we cannot say they wanted to learn that for their own personal growth. They are activities with a means to an end, an outcome, pretty much as is a recall, “return to me”.

In our training sessions she does get to grow by learning the difference between different words: which is “down” which is “stand-there”, which is “go around this way”, and which is “go around that way”.

She does get to grow by observing and memorising the patterns of my behaviour that are relevant to her:

~ an object I collect and offer her is a follow-cue

~ when I step back it means go around this way

~ when I toss a treat it means chase.

She may learn these things as she goes through life, just as Merrick may learn not to run into trees, but often they learn by a route not of our choosing: something aversive happened and learning is a necessity to avoid future discomfort.

Our training is about giving them learning skills: 

Observation: watching the order and patterns of their peers and family

Awareness: of their environment, of themselves and how their actions achieve outcomes,

Memory: deciphering sounds and signals, patterns of behaviour. Remembering what is relevant, semi-relevant and non-relevant.

Puzzle solving: why something works on Wednesdays but not on Mondays.

Physical skills: running to a stop, going through small gaps, containing momentum as we go around corners, placing feet in exact spots

Mental skills: holding a thought whilst other things are happening, focussing on an outcome, containing anticipation. Mental stamina through repetition.

Using innate and instinctive skills: and polishing them to a higher quality, getting better at being who they are.

Potential of an individual is not about their potential for your benefit, but their potential for their benefit.c

Consider the view, and purpose, of training from opposite points. I am teaching her to use her left paw and right paw. This will involve a change in balance to allow for an accurate action, with exact energy. Either paw will have a unique cue, and a range of actions – tap, pull, push, wave.

My gains: cool behaviours, new learning to explore, something extra to enjoy and discover how she learns, adapting my teaching.

Her gains: a greater awareness of one side is different from the other side, this “concept” reaches to many other activities that are side-related, exquisitely accurate and delicate movements that can translate to subtle changes in communication skills. More training time together means more learning about me, what makes me laugh, what gets food off me. These things deepen our relationship, which is direct growth for her in her security of belonging, being part of a group, and as a collie being a partner.

Training should always be viewed from both sides but often we forget to adjust the learning for the learner’s benefit.

Being able to do more behaviours, define different actions, control energy in movement directly affects a dog’s ability to communicate, navigate the human world, meet the daily challenges and find solutions.

Learning as part of a two-way conversation increases the feeling of safety and connection. Confidence expands and new worlds are explored, even if this means using her exquisitely delicate actions to silently remove shoes from my cupboard and discover the taste of rubber!

News on courses, articles and stuff you don't want to miss.