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Going From No and Wrong to Change and Create as a Trainer

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

I am reinforcing Tessa's calm behavior near this very young foal.

When I was a child, I heard "no" a lot, and I learned to avoid people who wanted to place limitations on me. I suspect you can imagine what those notes on my school report card often looked like. But when I reflect back on my childhood, the people that I remember the most are the people who invited me to try something new and then made sure I was successful at it.

I remember words like "Have you thought about it this way?" or "Have you tried this?" or "Let's see what happens if we do this.".

Through my own education as a trainer, I now know that what those teachers were doing is called "shaping" because rather than pointing out my mistakes they invited me to see the situation differently and try something else.

A trainer of me once pointed out that dogs are not born knowing what "no" means, and yet I suspect it is one of the words that almost all dogs come to understand. And it could be any word. The negative connotation is the problem, not the word.

Dogs that are told "no" learn they can make mistakes; very often, they have no idea what behavior would not have been a mistake. That uncertainty creates a myriad of problems for dogs and owners. One of the first places problems show up is in the general character of the dog.

Back to me, when I am around people I feel comfortable with, I smile a lot and am happy to engage with them. When I am around people I am afraid of, I am cautious and very quiet. When I am around people that I feel worried around, such as people whose body language I can't read well, I worry about making mistakes in front of them - and then, sure enough, I do! And they are often really foolish mistakes that I would not normally make. How frustrating!

So, I have given you an example of three types of people. I suspect that persons from each of these groups would describe me differently from each other, and yet I am the same me. This is true for dogs too. Let's talk about Bella.

Bella was in training with me for a brief period of time. I was asked to work with her, in part, because her feet and open mouth were everywhere. She was fast and so busy that it was difficult even to know who she really was.

The day that I met her, I was just grateful that she was willing to be near me, so there was no way that I was going to set terms for her about how she could be near me. Instead, I clicked and paid her for any behavior I liked and ignored the ones I didn't. Keep in mind that Bella had never heard a clicker or met a treat pouch up to this point.

I'm going to use Bella as my example of eliminating no and wrong in favor of change and create.

Bella's current behavior - jumping up

The behavior I want - four paws on the ground

What I did - I walked with Bella. I kept her moving. I kept her engaged by changing direction a lot, so she began to pay attention to me because she didn't know what I would do next. When she jumped up, I waited until her paws were on the ground again, clicked at exactly that instant, paid, and then moved off quickly.

I worked with Bella for about thirty seconds, then we took a play break, and then we went back to training. This went on for fifteen minutes or so. Then we took a bigger break, leaving Bella to consider what had just happened.

At first, Bella gave me an instant to click before she had her feet on me again - and then she took two steps before she jumped again - progress! We stopped and played a little. Bella began to watch my eyes. In doing so, her feet were on the ground for longer periods of time, so I had a lot I could pay her for.

As she began to understand that her behavior could make me do things she liked she purposefully gave me more of those behaviors. Her body slowed down, which made her much easier for me to work with because my timing of the click didn't have to be quite so precise.

The behavior I got - Bella kept her feet on the ground more and more of the time on her own. I never scolded her for doing things I didn't want her to do; I only paid for things I liked. In a trainer's terms, I "taught her an incompatible behavior" because jumping up can't be done at the same time four paws on the ground happens.

Bella came to live with me at the ranch for seven days. She changed right in front of me. She became calm, attentive, confident, mindful, and happy. She was incredibly easy to work with and a completely lovely dog.

When she went home, her owner was impressed with Bella's changed behavior. How long this changed behavior will last depends on the choices her owner makes. With me, Bella could make no mistakes. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain just by being near me so she was calm and easy to be around. With her owner, sometimes he was happy with her, and sometimes he let her know she had made a mistake, so she became flighty and insecure around him.

Same dog!!!!

My challenge to you, trainer to trainer, is to eliminate "no" and "wrong" from your vocabulary and thoughts as you work with animals, or people, for that matter. Here's how:

Look at the behavior in front of you - specifically, look at what the dog's body is actually doing. Put that into words, as that will help you define it.

Decide what you would like the dog's body to do instead - Again, put it into words. "Keep her feet down" is not a description of what you want the dog's body to be doing; "four feet on the ground" is. This is very different.

Figure out what YOU can do to make it probable that the dog will give you your desired behavior - With Bella, in order to walk, a dog has to put his four feet on the ground. How nice!

Wrapping it up

Think about the various ways people in my life might describe me based on their experiences of me. Think of the Bella I met on that first day and the Bella that left the ranch after seven days of sublime success. Which Bella would you like to live with, or which me would you prefer to be around?

Learn to look for what is going right because there is absolutely always something a dog is doing that you can thank him for. If you do that, he'll make it a habit to do that behavior more often. A confident dog is a more predictable dog than a fearful or insecure dog is.

Most dogs are taught about mistakes and failures by people.

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