Let them say no

By | Mar 17, 2019

By Cinder Wilkinson-Kenner, CPDT-KA.

Is your dog allowed to say, NO? Mine is.

This is a relatively new concept in the world of dog training. Back in the “old days” the common advice when training our dogs, “handlers should never, ever, let the dog make any choices of its own”. Whether in training, play, even when fearful, the handler should never allow the dog to choose the course of action. This led to unnecessary force, battling constantly with our dogs, and broken or damaged bonds of trust between handlers and dogs. Because dogs will make choices, based on the options open to them, it also led to escalation of fear and aggression, or completely shutting down, causing dogs who could have been good performers and companions to be given up and/or euthanized.

The new paradigm of dog training is all about our dogs being allowed and encouraged to say no, when they are in situations that are too stressful for them to react appropriately, when they are in pain, and when they just don’t feel like playing. Dogs making choices is nothing new, the new concept is that handlers respect the dog’s choice. Sometimes this is extremely hard for trainers, especially those of us who started training a long time ago, when the tools available to us were quite limited, and the skills mostly focused on timing your punishments well.

The “new” force-free training methods aren’t all that new. Karen Pryor began using them with marine mammals many years ago, and her training methods broke into the canine and equine mainstream with the advent of online list servers and chat groups in the early 1990s. Click-L was my “go-to” training partner in the mid-1990’s when I first discovered clicker training. I’d read “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Lads Before the Wind,” been playing a little with more precision in my heelwork, and teaching the broad jump off -lead, but the big epiphany came with the retrieve. Like many obedience trainers, I had a dog who had been taught to keep things out of his mouth, and I could not get him to retrieve. After a horrible (and unsuccessful!) ear pinch experience with a trainer at another club, I found Lana Mitchell’s “The Clicked Retriever,” which changed my worldview. Oh, and taught me to teach my dog to retrieve!

Some of the most useful things I have learned from force-free training I’ve been able to apply in the Shy Dog program. With dogs who are afraid of anything and everything, or who just have no life experience, it is vital to respect their option to say, “NO”! Many dogs who are fearful are quickly taught to be reactive or even aggressive by being forced to confront things that frighten them. When they are given no “flight” option, they are forced to choose “fight,” so of course they growl, snarl, snap and bite. As soon as they find threat displays to be a useful and effective strategy, they continue performing them. When given the choice of staying or leaving, and when staying produces an enjoyable reinforcement, they learn gradually that the fearsome object is actually a dispenser of pleasurable experiences, and the fear fades. Dogs who are considered “normal” benefit from the option of choice, as well. I love watch- ing and teaching clicker classes, because after a few minutes, even the most distractible dog is “in the game.” Watching dogs choose to connect with their handlers, rather than scan the room, bark and lunge at the other dogs, or just stare into space because they are clearly enjoying the process of the game, is the biggest benefit, in my opinion. After using the clicker clearly and consistently, the complaint, “My dog just won’t pay attention to me” just disap- pears. Sometimes the complaint becomes: “My dog won’t stop staring at me!” That’s a complaint I want to hear from all of my students! I enjoy seeing the happy, wiggling, hard-working dogs, who don’t look stressed or fearful, but are engaged, and learning while having fun. Also, the happy, unstressed handlers, who smile and laugh, working and learning along with their dogs.

Clicker training is also a big benefit to dogs who have “issues” with other dogs, or people, or other behavioral issues. My own dog is particular about his playmates. He had some bad experiences, both before I had him, and since, and is very cautious around active dogs. I could punish him every time he asks a dog to leave him alone (barking, lunging, etc.) but then I would only be reinforcing the premise that indeed, other dogs DO mean bad things are going to happen, like his owner is going to go nuts, turn on him when he needs support, and hurt him! Instead, I choose to manage the situations I put him in, reinforce appropriate behavior, redirect inappropriate behavior, and introduce him slowly to other dogs. I watch his body language carefully, and if he is uncomfortable, we get out of the situation, together. By letting him choose, I maintain the bond of trust with him, keep both of us and other dogs safe, and reinforce positive interaction with other dogs. The reactivity has decreased considerably, and no one gets hurt! As a member of a partnership, though you are still the “senior partner,” it’s good to let the other partner have some of the decision-making responsibility. Make yourself a trustworthy partner, trust your partner, and allow your partner to make some decisions. I know it’s a big leap, but it’s one worth taking. You will strengthen your bond with your dog, open wider learning opportunities for you both, and have a lot of fun in the process!

Article found on page 13, Obediently Yours (issue: Fall 2009). Obediently Yours is a publication of Greater St. Louis Training Club. http://www.gsltc.org