Because I Can’t Be Everywhere
Twice in one week I was called for private lessons with clients whose dogs were in my group classes. Both dogs had passed my basic classes. One of the dogs worked in my intermediate group; the other had progressed to my advanced class. So I was surprised in both instances to hear that I was being called because the dogs were “acting crazy” and “not listening.”
In both cases, I arrived for the lesson to find no evidence of the manic and out-of-control behavior that had been described to me. Each dog was calm and, as we worked through the respective lessons, each dog responded obediently to commands.
Both people told me that their dogs never listened and responded as well as they did when I was with them for the lesson.
“You should see how bad he is when you aren’t here!” said one.
“He is never this good when you are not here!” said the other.
They believed that their dogs obeyed because I was there. They were sure that my presence had some miraculous effect on their dogs’ behavior. But in truth, the dogs obeyed because my presence had a miraculous effect on the handlers’ behavior. I have never handled these dogs myself. I have never corrected them myself. These dogs had no reason to believe that I would suddenly step in and bring the hammer down if they misbehaved. The people, on the other hand, had attended enough of my classes to know what I expected from them. They knew I would call them out for repeating a command or for an inadequate or inappropriate correction. Consequently, because I was watching, they handled their dogs as they had been taught. They watched for inattention. They did not repeat commands. They were consistent and firm in their corrections. They calmly praised obedience. Because I was there, the humans “upped their game.” And the dogs responded. It’s not a miracle. It’s common sense. If you handle your dog correctly you will get better results. The dogs didn’t behave better because I was there. The humans behaved better because I was there.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness . . . or Consistency
One of the ironies of my work is that success depends in large part on what happens when I am not around. I can provide the knowledge and teach the skills people need to manage their dogs’ behavior, but I cannot force them to use the knowledge and skills. Most people believe, of course, that they are following my instructions, so they cannot understand why their dogs are still disobedient. The problem is almost always that they do not use one of the most fundamental instructions I provide: Be consistent.
Consistency is not something that is added on top of the other training skills. It is a vital component of every skill and technique I teach. Without it, nothing else works.
Training inconsistency is a little like cheating on a diet. The results speak for themselves. Often, a student will come to class or a lesson and after one or two corrections, the dog’s tail drops; the wag vanishes, and the dog sulks through the exercises. After years of experience as a trainer, I know that the reason for the sulking is confusion because the dog is being corrected for behavior he had been getting away with outside of class. Usually, if the person stays consistent as the lesson progresses, the dog recognizes the return of consistency and gets back in the game. Unfortunately, this attitude adjustment will last only as long as the consistency does. If the human slides back into poor handling habits outside of class, the dog will slide back into poor behavior habits. You can take a private lesson every day, but unless you consistently apply those lessons in situations outside of class, you will be wasting time and money.
Assuming that nobody wants to waste time and money to train a dog to be disobedient, it would seem the obvious answer is to just be consistent. So why isn’t that happening? When clients do not handle their dogs consistently, it is usually the result of confusion, fear, and/or frustration.
Clearing Up Confusion
Consistency means communicating with and responding to your dog in a reliable and predictable way in all situations and at all times.
Always use the same word to give a command for a desired behavior. Don’t say “down” sometimes and “lie down” at other times. It doesn’t matter whether you use the German word, the English word, or a Latin word; just use the same word or phrase every time for a specific action you want your dog to perform.
Give commands in a calm and firm tone and manner. Your mood or energy level should not change how you communicate commands to your dog. Your voice should always be firm, steady, and calm. If you yell angrily at your dog sometimes and coax him sweetly other times, he will only become anxious in response to your unpredictability.
Maintain the same expectations for acceptable behavior both in and out of training. It’s no good to you that your dog heels around a circle in class if he drags you from the car to the training area. He will only stop pulling if he is taught that pulling is always unacceptable. Similarly, the “in-class” expectation is that the dog should respond obediently to a single command. Consistency means that response to a single command is your expectation outside of class as well: in your yard, in your home, on the street, in the park. . .wherever and whenever you give a command.
And hold yourself to a “classroom” standard as well. Are you using the body language you learned? Are you keeping your voice firm and deep? Are you giving your dog your full attention?
Always correct disobedience and acknowledge obedience.
Any command that comes from your mouth, in any language, must be obeyed. So, if you are hanging out with your dog at home, don’t give a command unless you are willing to get up from the sofa or table and correct your dog if he disobeys. This means that until your dog is reliably obedient, you will need to keep a training collar and at least a short leash on him at home—all the time. You can’t just put the collar on when he is misbehaving; he will soon learn that he can ignore you until the collar is on.
Conversely, don’t forget to acknowledge obedience and the end of an exercise at home. If you tell your dog to sit and stay, be consistent in signaling him when he is allowed to get up. If you do not consistently release him, you are giving him the message that he should just guess when the exercise is over.
Even after consistency is made perfectly clear, some people still struggle to implement it. They make exceptions because they are afraid of scaring their dogs, squashing their dogs’ enthusiasm, or overlooking their dogs’ unique needs and personality. The truth is, making exceptions exacerbates these problems; consistency solves them.
I know your dog is unique.
When I first meet a dog and a client, I assess the dog’s temperament. I observe how he responds to correction, stimulation, attention, distractions and so on. Some dogs cannot handle high-energy praise—it over-stimulates them and makes it more difficult for them to behave. Others need more verbal encouragement to engage with the lesson. My directions on how and when to correct or praise the dog are made with full knowledge of the dog’s individuality. Consistency does not mean that I tell everyone to praise and reward in the exact some way at the exact same level. It means that once I have established what is needed for your dog, you should keep doing it that way—both in class and at home. Don’t start tweaking the plan and making exceptions after you leave class.
A correction should stop the behavior.
Not every dog needs the same level of correction, but every dog should be corrected at a level that stops him from immediately returning to the behavior. If the correction doesn’t stop the behavior, then the correction wasn’t firm enough. Increase the level of correction until one correction interrupts the behavior and prevents an immediate return to it. Don’t make exceptions because the dog is distracted or nervous. These are the times you most need your dog to be obedient so you can keep him safe. Don’t make exceptions because you feel bad about correcting your dog. It is kinder to the dog to give one solid, effective correction than to give numerous ineffective corrections. Be consistent—in class, in the park, at home—everywhere and anywhere—in using the appropriate level of correction to interrupt and stop the disobedient behavior.
Predictability is security.
When your dog knows what to expect, even if it is a predictable correction for misbehavior, he feels more confident and secure in his actions. Maintaining consistency in your training across class behavior and home behavior gives your dog the predictable framework he needs to make the connection that this behavior always gets that response. If your responses change in different circumstances or are dependent on whether you think your dog is scared, then your dog is never on solid, predictable ground. He has no reliable clues to choose behavior that avoids correction or earns a reward. He is always under stress. This stress may manifest not just as fear, but also as excitability, hyperactivity, and aggression. So even if your dog does not appear fearful, inconsistency nonetheless raises his cortisol levels and affects his nervous system in the same way as visible anxiety.
Don’t worry about drive.
One of the most common rationalizations I hear for inconsistent corrections is, “I am afraid I will kill his drive.” So at home, he gets corrected less. Disrespectful pushing and jumping are chalked up to enthusiasm. When he races after a ball instead of sitting as instructed, you make an exception because “you don’t want to kill his drive.” Corrections don’t kill drive. Inconsistent or unfair corrections kill drive. And it is most definitely unfair to raise the bar for class or a lesson if you have been more relaxed at home. A dog that becomes accustomed to disobeying two and three repetitions of a command before being corrected (if he is corrected at all) is going to be upset if he is suddenly getting corrected after the first disobedience in class. It isn’t the correction that is upsetting—it is the confusion. Why the change? He thought he understood the status quo, and you changed the rules.
Most of the time, a dog will bounce back and stop sulking once he understands the new rules. Unfortunately, however, because you made exceptions at home, you will have lost training time in class and will have given him the message that you are unpredictable and unreliable. Do it often enough, and he will give up even trying. You will have killed his drive through inconsistency between class and home.
It’s OK to give yourselves a break. Sometimes, people make an exception to the rules because they just don’t have the energy or attention to focus on a misbehaving dog. Realistically, there are times when you cannot give your dog your full attention. There will also be times when your frustration level is too high to effectively train. It is OK to contain your dog in his kennel or crate if you are unwilling or unable to supervise him and correct misbehavior. If you have to focus on something else, it is better for your relationship to have him chill in his own space for a while than to let him get away with misbehavior. Letting misbehavior slide at home will only result in your dog developing bad habits and with you eventually blowing your stack in frustration. Your poor dog will be totally confused as to why the behavior he’s been engaging in all day has suddenly caused you to start screaming at him. It is not only possible, but also advisable, to maintain consistency by preventing disobedience when you are not ready, willing, or able to correct it.
It’s Not Me; It’s You
Much of what we teach our dogs do in training runs counter to what they want to do in the moment. We tell them to heel when they would find it more appealing to bounce off and wrestle with all the other canines. We teach them to stay, even when they want to run. We teach them to control their impulses in order to keep them safe—and ourselves sane. For their sake, and our own, obedience has to be second nature. I can teach you how to achieve this with your dog. I can share the knowledge and skills that make it happen. What I cannot do is ensure your commitment to consistency. But if you have that commitment, if you consistently follow through at home with what I teach in class, if you avoid exceptions and excuses, if you train as if I were always watching, then the training will succeed. I can provide the knowledge and skills, but when it comes to applying it consistently—it’s not me; it’s you.