Training Consistency

A situation occurred at yesterday’s training that requires some follow-up.  For those of you who were there, this will help clarify my intense response to the circumstances. For those of you who were not there, the principles involved are important enough that they bear repeating. 

Too often I watch owners handling their dogs in class and notice that after one or two corrections the dog’s tail is down; the wag is gone; and the dog is sulking through the exercises. As a trainer, I know the reason for the sulking is confusion and inconsistency. However, someone with less experience might come to the conclusion that the dog is upset with the owner or that he doesn’t like to train.  

When a dog is trained using clear communication, the training succeeds and the dog excels. Unfortunately, the idea of clear communication is a source of confusion for most people. Everyone talks about training being “black and white” or “night and day,” but the concept is rarely executed correctly.  

What is Clear Communication? 

Clear communication includes being consistent with the commands you use for desired behaviors, being consistent with the tone and delivery of commands, and being consistent in how you respond to disobedience and obedience at all times and in all situations. 

Always use the same word to communicate the same desired behavior. Do not say “down” one day and “lie down” another; using different commands for the same desired behavior will confuse your dog.  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. 

Do not yell commands one day and whisper commands another day. 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 sometimes and coax him sweetly other times, your dog will only become anxious in response to your unpredictability. Consistency with your training equipment is equally important. You can’t put the training collar and leash on the dog only when he is behaving badly.  Doing this makes your dog think that you only require proper behavior at certain times and that he can be wild or disobey when the collar is off. 

Maintain the same expectations for acceptable behavior both in and out of class. Do not allow your dog to pull you (or any other person) when walking in the neighborhood and then demand that he heel correctly at your side during training. Do not allow your dog to pull you into training and then expect him to heel during class. Do not prioritize commands and become sterner with certain commands over others. Dogs cannot prioritize which commands are more important to you, nor can they show their immediate response to which one YOU think is more critical.  

Correct disobedience or unacceptable behavior whenever and wherever it occurs. Many handlers are harder on their dogs in a class environment and more lenient at home. The dog then associates the training field or class with harsh corrections and that is one reason we see the tail drop. I have had clients come to me from other trainers and say, “On the field I speak German and correct for disobedience.  But in my house, it’s English and he doesn’t have to respond to the first command.”  The dog is NOT making that association. 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. As I said yesterday, 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.  

Dealing with Drive 

 Correcting your dog will not break drive. Breaking the drive of a dog (i.e. sulking to the point the dog does not want to work) comes from inconsistent handling or being unfair. The dog does not understand when he is allowed to respond in a certain way and when he is going to be allowed to get away with disobedience; therefore, after one or two corrections, he shuts down. Unfortunately, this is what happened in yesterday’s training session. A dog that was accustomed to getting several repetitions of a command was being corrected after ignoring the first command—and he didn’t like it! It was not the correction itself that was the problem; the collar was not set high and the correction was not harsh. The dog was simply upset because the casual air with which he was normally allowed to regard commands was suddenly not flying anymore. Then, when the poor dog did obey the command, he got corrected anyway!  You must remain cognizant of your dog’s actions. Don’t give a correction on “auto-pilot.” Although right timing is key to a correction, you have to take a beat to determine whether you are getting an obedient or disobedient response. If you just hit the correction automatically, the dog is being corrected for obedience, which is totally unfair and completely confusing.   In order to facilitate effective training and to be fair to the dog, the best course of action yesterday was for me to control the remote. 

Many top trainers in various dog sports profess to new handlers that they should not do obedience training with their puppies.  In fact, I know that these top trainers are training their own puppies, because I do! But we do advise “newbies” to avoid harsh obedience because of the risk of inconsistent handling. Similarly, many top trainers also believe pups should be raised in a kennel and not in a home. Handlers/owners allow the pup or young dog to get away with disobedience in the home, but then become demanding on the training field.  Once again, it is not only “not bad” to contain your dog, it is, in fact, advantageous to limit his exposure to situations and circumstances that he is not yet equipped to handle with good behavior. Rather than constantly correcting him, giving him time on his own in a safe space as part of his regular routine decreases stress and aggravation for both of you.  

Our Enormous Responsibility 

Our dogs’ love for us is unconditional, but their respect has to be earned. We have an enormous responsibility to instill obedience for the safety of our dogs and those who come in contact with our dogs.  This is a biting sport that teaches a dog to bite full, hard and to hold on.  If you are doing this sport and teaching your dog to bite the way that is required for this sport YOU MUST be diligent in your handling.  There is no room for mistakes.  The heart of Schutzhund training is control, and reliable control can only be established with consistency. It is unrealistic, unfair, and irresponsible to expect that your dog can turn respect and obedience on and off between home and class.  Control must be continued at home as well. We are responsible for ensuring that our dogs know what we expect to that they can follow those expectations. As you know, the motto for my business—and frankly for all my interactions with our four-legged partners is “Don’t blame the dog.” And, as far as yesterday was concerned, I was upset because the owner was being totally unfair to the dog.  At the end of the day, I am going to be person sticking up for the dog.