Working at the Dog’s Level

When a dog owner comes to believe that his dog cannot be trained, it is often a result of working beyond the dog’s level during the training effort.  Working at the dog’s level means making observations and assessments of your dog’s ability to connect and respond to the handler.  Then, adjusting environmental elements to facilitate the dog’s success.  Dogs displaying few or no behaviors that the handler wants to reinforce, provides no learning opportunity for the dog.  This is not a productive learning scenario.  Repeated reinforcement for desirable behaviors is the path to success.

Set Up for Success

Setting your dog up to succeed is a mantra of positive reinforcement training methods.  As people live and work with their dogs, they become aware of situations that affect the dog’s behaviors.  This is referred to as situational awareness and is a key element in all training programs.  In situations where stimuli are overwhelming, the dog’s ability to perform will disappear. 

Here are several examples.  A person approaching your dog, especially if she is also walking a dog, can push your dog over a threshold level of excitement.  As this duo moves closer, your dog may become increasing unable to function.  You, the handler, must adjust elements of this situation.  Changing direction with a U-turn, yielding space to increase the distance between you and the oncoming person/dog, and making a pointed effort to mentally reconnect with your dog are all adjustments. You are teaching your dog a skill:  walk by another dog, showing only a mild interest.

Young dogs and children are an interesting dynamic.  Lots of situational awareness and adjustments are required to develop calm and harmony over time.  With a gathering of children and a young dog in the mix, how to set up for success?  There is a lot of energy in the environment for a young dog to navigate.  The length of time that the dog is exposed to this whirl of activity, and the proximity of the dog to the hub of the group are necessary adjustments.  What would setting up for success look like?  It would involve brief exposure at a distance with specific directives and high value reinforcement from the handler.

Every Dog is Unique

We humans are individuals, varying in our thresholds and capabilities.  This applies to dogs, too.  Progress may not move along as speedily as we would like.  It may be tempting to “push” the dog ahead.  This strategy often does not hold in the short term and does not work in the long run.  Adolescence is the developmental phase where it is quite evident that adjustments help the dog succeed and learn.  

Owners committed to teaching the dog life skills can reach their goals.  The most important part of this commitment is acceptance of each dog’s individual learning pace and a willingness to adjust expectations.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC