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Training - Knowing When to Walk Away - Eevie & Banks - Shaping

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

After thoroughly fogging up the back window, these pups are ready to head to their new home.

I am currently providing training support for twelve dogs and their owners, and I am probably forgetting someone. Does the thought of that make your head spin around?! It does mine! I love training dogs and working with their owners, but spacing it out a little would be OK!

I often write the blogs I do in response to specific events or questions people may have. This is one of those times. This topic is common to owners of dogs of any age.

One of my training maxims is "don't add energy to behaviors you don't want." This is because doing so will often excite the dogs rather than settle them; interrupting the behavior and redirecting the dog is usually a better choice, or just giving the dogs a minute to change their behavior to something I can mark and reinforce such as eye contact.

Because I have shared this statement with the people I am working with, three have walked away from problem behaviors happening in front of them rather than stepping in to shape a new behavior instead. Kathy pointed out to me that I have not been clear on this point! I continually strive to communicate more clearly through my blogs; we'll see how I do with this one!

Let's try this pretend scenario: You are looking at your dogs, and they begin to fight with each other, or bound around when you would appreciate calm behavior instead, or whatever. How do you know if you should step in and train or walk away instead? Here's the answer:

First, define the behavior in front of you in terms of words that describe what the dog's body is physically doing; the dog is moving quickly, and his front feet leave the ground, rather than "the dog is excited."

Now, think of what you would like the dog's body to do instead using specific language.

If you walk away, is it likely that the dog's body will do what you want him to do?

Sometimes, the answer is "yes." Kathy recently described to me greeting her three adult Maremmas at her gate. They growled and got grumpy as they pushed each other around to get to her; she walked away, and they dispersed and went back to work. Good training choice on her part!

Katie W. has a bouncy pair of five-month-old pups. They got in a growly fight because they were competing for her attention - and she walked away. This is not a good training choice on her part because it is not informative to the pups; they have no way of knowing that they were doing something she didn't like or what she would rather they do instead.

In Kathy's situation, she is dealing with well-trained, adult dogs whose behavior has been carefully shaped since they were pups. Taking away some of the stimulus that was too much for them at that moment makes it likely that they will go back to the familiar behavior of the well-trained dogs they are. Katie's pups are still at that oh so important age when their behavior can be shaped; she can create dogs with the predictable, pleasant behaviors Kathy's dogs have by participating with her pups.

Following my advice, this is what Katie reported to me this morning:

"When I opened the aisle this morning, both dogs were relaxed and happy. However, Eevie did grumble and nip at Banks while I was petting both. I just moved my body more between them and gave pets immediately as they were on either side, both manding. I feel like you empowered me to be more physically assertive to step in as Eevie starts to grump, and both dogs responded to this subtle shift positively. Banks relaxed, and Eevie directed her attention back to me. I mean, we were mid-cuddle, after all."

This is a lovely example of shaping behavior. I think of training as creating behaviors rather than stopping them. Katie gently but effectively shifted the behavior of her pups while building their confidence in themselves and in her. She has only had these pups for about a week; they are a handful! I chose bold, powerful pups for Katie for two reasons; her predator pressure is high, so she needs bold dogs, and Katie is sharp. These are the first Maremma pups Katie has trained, but I have a lot of confidence that she will be successful with them for many reasons; one of them is that she can be coached. She reaches out to me and asks questions. She sends me short videos so that I can read the body language of her pups. As a team, we will train her pups.

As Katie continues to shape her pups, increasingly, they will offer her behaviors they have learned she likes. They won't do this to please her; it doesn't work that way for dogs. They will offer her these learned behaviors because they know they will get what they want, which is her attention. Dogs always do what is immediately reinforcing to them.

And back to Kathy's dogs...Kathy now knows they could use a little tune-up regarding handling stress around her. Next time, if she goes to the gate prepared, she can click and treat for the behaviors she wants, and her dogs will quickly settle back into the soft behaviors she has taught them.

This is a very short video of me shaping Yeti's behavior to go back to his food bowl. Had I left instead, he would have gone on to harass his partner.

***Some feedback on this blog***

Katie S. owns the pups shown in the car's back window in the photo at the top of the blog. Her pups are siblings to Eevie and Banks; she has had them only a few days. I shared this blog with her, and this is what she had to say:

"This was very helpful! It makes sense that we need to adjust our responses depending on the training level of the dogs, although I've never conceptualized this. This is extremely helpful as I try to integrate the two (pictured) bold, powerful, handful pups that I picked up a few days ago :P I find for them that being too static and staying still increases the likelihood that they will jump on me and bite, but a little movement, walking while petting, helps them keep their feet off me so I can find a behavior I want, which is basically anything besides jumping. I like the clean language piece too! It really helps to take the interpretation out of our words and just focus on the body movements."

So, here's a challenge; see if you can follow this! I sold Katie S. two 18-month-old Maremmas a few months ago. She did great with them, but due to a very bold mountain lion attack on her sheep, one of the dogs was left with a lasting fearful memory of the experience, though she certainly did her job the night of the attack. I brought her home and gave Katie two four-month-old male pups instead. Now Katie had her adult male and two young male pups to train; training Maremma pups is new to Katie. Over a little time, it became clear that one of the male pups was better suited to her circumstance than the other, so I had her bring him home and sent her off with the two female pups shown in the car. Now Katie has an adult male and three five-month-old pups to train; brave girl, Katie is!

Katie's adult male is a well-trained, slow and steady guy. The two male pups are mild pups, while the girl pups I just sent her are bold and sassy. Stay tuned! It will be interesting to see how it all turns out with Katie's dynamic Maremma adventure!

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