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training myself

I usually try to write something here on Fridays, but this past week I had houseguests and it was my pleasure to spend Friday at the beach with them instead of pecking away at my computer.  Thus, the Monday blog instead of the Friday blog. 

One of the television shows I have watched a few times this summer is Dogs in the City.  The idea is that a dog trainer named Justin roams around New York city offering his help to dog owners who are having problems with their canines.  There are interesting cases like the blind dog, the pampered dog in a pink dress, the barking dog who can't get adopted from a shelter, and lots of aggressive and socially challenged animals.  What I find most fascinating is seeing the dog trainer use a bit of magic and voila!  The dog is changed!  Okay, it's not really magic and the dog doesn't really change as much as become a better version of him or herself, but this guy has an uncanny ability to adjust a dog's behavour as well as the dynamic between pets and their owners.  I have tried to put some of these principles into practice with Jazz (my resident feline) with limited success.  She is not a dog, after all, but there are quite a few things that I have gleaned from watching a master dog whisperer at work.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, I found that many of the same principles can be applied to humans as well!  I mean no offense, but behaviour modification has some basics that are the same for all living creatures.  Here are a few of Justin's practises that strike me as more than just good dog management.

1.  Don't be afraid to lead.  In many cases, dog owners have abdicated their roles as leaders and dogs can react by becoming aggressive (taking on the role of protector).  In other cases, the owner acts as  a passive leader, setting the tone without realising that the motivations she acts out of directly impact the dog.  When the owner is tense, the dog is tense.  When the owner is fearful, the dog reacts by attacking others.  Confusion breeds more confusion.  You get the picture.  In essence, Justin is training owners to be good leaders and to exemplify the type of behaviour they want to see in their dogs: a sense of calmness, security, sociability, and self-control.

2.  You can't teach a negative.  This one has been ringing in my brain for weeks now.  I tend to be a person who sees what is lacking, so I am often quick to point out faults, especially in myself.  However, this is not all that useful when it comes to behaviour modification.  When Justin asks an owner what they want the dog to do, they often say something like, "I don't want him to bark at people."  Justin responds by pointing out that one cannot teach what not to do; one can only teach what to do!  Brilliant!  In many cases, a barking dog is a dog looking for a job, for something to do.  Justin demonstrates that if you give a dog a clear job, the animal can be pretty easily trained.

3.  Practice, practice, practice.  Learning new behaviour does not happen overnight.  If you watch Justin, you see a pattern:  First, he first observes the dogs and humans in action and helps them get honest about what is happening.  Then, he clarifies the dynamic that is reinforcing the bad behaviour and corrects any foundational issues such as inaccurate information or wrong assumptions.   Third, he comes up with a plan to teach desirable behaviour which involves training the owners as much as the dogs.  It always includes putting both of them in the situation which has proved problematic and working it through.  Lastly, he leaves them with the tools for success and reminds them that it will take practice and consistency for it to stick.

4. Don't confuse love with giving gifts or letting somedog (someone) do whatever they want.  Some owners let the dogs have the run of the house, eating off the table, scratching at furniture, and displacing people on couches or beds.  Others feed them more food and treats than needed.  Some dress them up in clothes, carry them everywhere, or push them around in strollers.  A lack of rules or excessive pampering can be confused with love, and it leaves the dog confused about its role.  A well-loved dog is a dog that participates in a balanced regimen when it comes to food, work, and play. A happy dog also relates appropriately to his owners and other animals and exemplifies the best traits of his particular breed and personality.

Now I am not suggesting that we treat others (or ourselves) like dogs that need to be trained, but I do believe there is wisdom to be found here.  How we treat our pets can be an indication of how we interact with our world.  Being a cat owner has most definitely helped me realise that I am a reluctant leader and need to take a more active role in setting the tone in situations for which I am responsible.  Like I mentioned before, I can be prone to pointing out negatives and staying "stop" instead of giving positive direction.  This is not a really effective teaching method, so I need to continue to grow in this area.  I also see how impatient and inconsistent I can be with the process of learning, thereby sometimes sabotaging it.  Finally, I am constantly realising that I need to show love more appropriately and more thoughtfully.

Thanks, Justin the dog whisperer.  You can catch a clip of Justin at work here.

the photo:  Jazz on her chair.


Shelley said…
I agree! I like to watch Cesar Milan, another dog whisperer for the same reasons. I don't even like dogs, but I remember ofter Cesar's point to owners to be sure of themselves and to set expectation and give orders with quiet, calm confidence that they will have a positive outcome. This makes a big difference in how I carry myself in some situations, especially when I am working with kids. :)

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