The ‘Missing Link’ of Dog Training

By Tony Knight Dog Listener

I once met a couple in Canberra, Australia who were being bitten on a regular basis at home by their dog. They decided that the offending pooch needed training, so they started attending obedience classes. Their dog became the star pupil, winning all the prizes at competitions for his impressive repertoire. The wife became so good at the obedience skills too that she became an obedience instructor – excellent…

They were still both getting bitten on a regular basis at home though…

When I met the dog in question, he tested me with a simple approach; coming up to me without me calling him. What do most people do when a dog comes up to them? What do you think the owners of this individual would do? What do you think was the result? I paid no attention to him and he walked back to his bed, gave me an appraising look and lay back down in his bed. A few moments later, I called him to me. He opened one lazy eye, looked at me then stayed put. Less than a minute later, he got up, stretched while fixing his gaze directly at me and walked up to me. What do most people do when a dog comes up to them? What do you think the owners of this individual would do? What do you think was the result? The game continued like this for a while; by the end of my visit, I had patted him a few times without getting bitten once he realised that I understood his game and would not fall for it.

Dogs are capable of learning all kinds of clever tasks and tricks; I have worked with police dogs, guide dogs for the Blind and even a dog that was trained to help a wheelchair-bound human to live a more independent life by helping with household chores. In each case, the dogs have asked questions of me on a fundamental level that was far more important to them than the jobs they had. I live opposite a park which has a little playground – I am a bad gardener so the idea of having a big garden next door that someone else mows was a stroke of genius in my head. Anyway, when my nieces would visit, they wanted to play on the swings and slide et al. I would accompany them and make sure that they were safe (well, as safe as they could be with an uncle who would push the swings a little too hard – I wanted to see if I could get them to spin all the way around…). However, even though they were my responsibility, I would not tell them what they could play on unless I felt it was unsafe. My job here was to make them happy.

The same principle explains why there are so many dogs that are super attentive and talented when attending obedience classes, yet they are a nightmare as soon as they leave the class or show ring. They are doing their best to make their people happy but ultimately they also believe that they are responsible for their human’s safety too. This responsibility leads to so many behaviour problems in the everyday world.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that there is no place for obedience training. As long as lessons are fun and positive you can enjoy this kind of work. I see it as icing on the cake; you can make the cake look as fancy as you want, provided the cake is underneath, supporting the whole construction. Without a cake underneath, there is an empty space which means the slightest pressure can bring the whole thing crashing down.

As a Dog Listener, I provide people with the recipe to make the cake. Once that is in place, you can ice away. Dogs will ask us questions everyday about the cake element, finding out which member of the family (if anyone) can be trusted to look after everyone. In the absence of a responsible human, the dog takes over this necessary role. Once you know how to show your dog that they can trust you, the pressure if off them and they can actually learn the icing part more easily.

In some cases, the training that a dog receives – to work with the police or blind people – is not cheap. It would be a huge shame to waste all that money when the way to turn failure into success is as simple as having the cake underneath all that icing. I once helped four potential guide dogs transform from failures (one was even biting the handler) to three successful graduates. Even the biter became a family pet so I will count that as a quartet of wins…

The good news is that the two elements are not mutually exclusive. You can enjoy the icing with the support of the cake underneath. The Dog Listening method compliments and improves the results of all other kinds of training – obedience, guide dog training, police work, sniffer dogs, armed forces roles etc. – by showing the dog that they can ultimately look to their human companion for decisions. Once the harness is on a Guide dog, they are working to help their human stay safe. At all other times, it is not hard to show them that they can trust their person with everything else…

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