On training methods

This is a bit of a follow on to last week's blog about stress. Last week I wrote about why I feel a bit of stress can be useful – particularly in terms of expanding the world that our dogs feel safe and comfortable in. This is a subject that really affects people who have aggressive dogs or reactive dogs.
This week is about training methods. Just being in a new place or learning something unfamiliar is already stressful. How much stress an individual dog is going to be under in those situations differs from dog to dog. Some dogs really take things in their stride and others worry more. Bearing these things in mind are important when teaching things or introducing your dog to a new experience.

With that in mind, it is important that training methods are used that don't themselves cause stress. Use treats, toys, a happy tone of voice, pats and strokes that your dog likes as rewards for making progress.

Avoid anything that is described as being useful to startle the dog, snap them out of a state of mind or that you think may frighten or hurt your dog. It's hard to come up with a complete list of the things that I would avoid as things that may add to stress but the things that spring to mind are choke chains, water sprays, bottles full of stones that make a startling noise, electric shock collars. While each of these may well seem to give a good short term result, they are not likely to be helpful in the long term and are likely to be adding stress to an already stressful situation for the dog.

As I said last week, a little bit of stress is a good thing but too much of it is terrible. Too much stress is associated with both behaviour and health problems. So I like to err on the side of caution and assume that the stress of encountering something different and new or the stress of new learning is enough on its own. I don't want to add to it with training methods that are also stressful.

I like to think of this as having a no blame culture when it comes to working with dogs. My working assumption is that the dog is doing their best with the information, skills and knowledge they have at the time. It is true that them doing their best may well not be what I want them to do. Sometimes it is the exact opposite but that's really my problem to deal with. The dog is doing their best.

With that assumption at the forefront of my mind, it is easier then for me to figure out ways to use all the fun things I have at my disposal to start teaching the dog alternatives. The learning of those alternatives will be easier if I don't increase the dog's stress level by using training methods that aren't nice for them.

Years ago when I was working with my bull mastiff, Calgacus, to help him with his worries about other dogs, we reached a point where he was doing really well. Sometimes, though, he struggled with being able to move away from stressful situations. He was a huge dog and tended toward wanting to deal with stress in active ways. So for a while if an interaction with another dog was stressful for him, he would want to chase the other dog away. With his skills, knowledge and size, he was absolutely correct that doing so would end interactions very quickly.

It wasn't something I liked, though and it could be worrying for the other dog. Plus, it did end interactions and as Calgacus started to like mixing with other dogs, that also wasn't really what he wanted. Often what he really wanted was to take the intensity out of an interaction. Using the lead as a management tool and lots of treats and encouragement, I showed Calgacus that he could turn away if things got too intense.

Here is the cool thing about a no blame approach to dog training, once he had that knowledge, he adapted it to really suit himself and the social situations he found himself in. He tended to go over to bushes and just stand and sniff them. Often for prolonged periods of time. He learned that dogs who were OTT or a bit worried by him would calm down and be less scared if all they weren't facing him. A bush was perfect because they couldn't circle around and be face to face with him. Many times I watched Calgacus do this while waiting for excited dogs to calm down before playing with them. Or with dogs who were worried by him until they felt reassured that he wasn't a threat. I would never have come up with that as an idea but it worked perfectly for Calgacus.

That is the real bonus of a no blame approach. It allows for the creative approaches and for new ideas to arise.

This is something I really have to thank all those years that I worked as systems developer for. The department I worked in for 22 years has had broadly a no blame approach the whole time I was in it. I say broadly because I know that it's a hard thing to do and not everybody managed it all of the time. Still – we tended to assume that everybody was doing their best. So when things went wrong, finding out who is to blame so that they could be disciplined in some way wasn't on anybody's radar.

When things went wrong – and they did – we would seek first of all to minimise damage and to prevent more things going wrong. Then we would seek to understand what happened. Not to find somebody to blame but instead so that we could understand if there was anything we could do to prevent it happening again. At work interventions were often to do with updating procedure notes, doing more staff training or making changes to the system itself to make it more robust.

I spent over two decades seeing and experiencing the benefits of this approach. The system was an incredible feat of collaborative working. It could do things that were unique in financial services. It is now decommissioned and has been replaced by several new systems – none of which are anywhere near as functionally rich. That level of excellence is what a no blame culture enables – in I.T. and in dog training.

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Tracey McLennan

Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.

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