Imagine this—my favorite analogy: we decide we’re going to take up ballet dancing and we go to the studio for our first lesson. When we walk in the door, how long does it take us to figure out Who’s the Boss? For most of us, it’ll take about 30 seconds to recognize that Madam Tutu is the dance instructor, and since she’s highly acclaimed and looks fabulous in her leotard, we’ll be brimming with Respect for her. Hooray, it took us 30-60 seconds to arrive at Leadership and Respect.
How long will it take us to learn how to dance?
Madam Tutu can spend the class fussing about us calling her by her honorific, curtseying to her correctly and applauding when she twirls her toes. Or she can teach us ballet. If you’re like me and your dog is like my dog, you really don’t care about being honored and applauded—you want your dog to learn Dance Steps for Real Life. How to hold a Sit-Stay when guests arrive, Come when called, get his nose out of the kitty litter box, keep her paws off the kitchen counter and go Lie Down calmly when asked. Walk on a leash without pulling, let the neighbor’s dog go by without barking, hold still while nails are trimmed and fetch means bring the ball back. These are not theoretical concepts. These are movements.
We know, and know very well, how to teach these behavior-movements without needing pain, fear or punishment. But we have to be honest—it’s not like in the commercials. Good behaviors don’t magically appear fully cooked in the oven without effort. Like learning ballet steps, it takes time, practice and effort to get them good, reliable and right.
As we line up at the barre in Madam Tutu’s dance class, what’s going to matter most to our success as students isn’t whether we’re clear that she’s The Boss (we are) or how deeply we respect her (we already do.) What’s going to matter the most is whether or not Madam Tutu is a good teacher. If she is, here’s what she’s likely to do:
1. She’s going to give us her undivided attention during class. As a good teacher, Madam Tutu wouldn’t dream of trying to teach us fancy footwork while she’s answering the phone, doing her bills or dealing with a service guy coming to fix the busted air conditioner. If she was multitasking during class, we’d be left dangling without instruction, get frustrated, resentful or bored. Yet, too many pet owners try to teach their pups and dogs “on the fly.” The time to teach new behaviors isn’t when the guests are arriving at the house, you’re trying to make dinner or you’re texting your buddies. That approach usually looks like a train wreck of yelling, “No! Stop! Don’t!” that teaches the dog very little—neither one of you can focus. If you want to teach your dog effectively, set aside a few minutes each day to give the dog your undivided training attention.
2. Madam Tutu will assess each student as an individual. A lean and athletic 20 year old may be able to work a lot harder than a slightly over-weight 50-something. One student may have a bad knee, or feet that turn in at an awkward angle for ballet steps. Another may have no rhythm or be musically challenged. One student may be brimming with enthusiasm and eager to try the hardest moves; another may be painfully shy and so worried about getting things right that tears flow at even the mildest criticism. Body type, overall health and fitness, prior experience and personality will all influence how these students learn best, and if Madam Tutu is a good instructor, she’ll be sensitive to the needs, immediate and long-term, of each pupil. She’ll also have different approaches up her leotard to present the lesson in the ways most suited to the individual student. Likewise, every dog is different, and before you start training, you should honestly assess your dog’s physical, mental and emotional abilities on that day. Dogs that aren’t feeling well, are injured, had a traumatic experience on the morning walk, are prone to be timid or haven’t had enough exercise lately and are amped up may not be in the best state to learn. Always address those issues first, before starting a training session, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
3. Madam Tutu will have age and level-appropriate expectations. She won’t expect her beginning students to perform at the same level as the advanced class that’s ready to tackle Swan Lake. She won’t take the same approach or demand the same behaviors with children as she will with adults. Children have shorter attention spans and can only focus for so long; they’re still “learning how to learn,” developing a work ethic and their motor muscle coordination isn’t fully developed. Beginning adult learners are used to being highly competent—and highly rewarded--in their own areas of expertise and may be quickly frustrated when asked to try something that doesn’t come naturally to them. Experienced adult learners often come with pre-existing baggage—years of rehearsing and practicing movements that they’ll fall back on as defaults and find difficult to change.
Likewise, puppies aren’t fully developed in brains or bodies, have short attention spans, and may not have the emotional maturity to maintain focus in demanding or difficult situations. Adult dogs that aren’t used to training may be out of learning practice, or not get the point; they may also have baggage that needs to be worked through before the new desired behavior becomes the new default. Expecting puppies to perform “big dog” behaviors or adult dogs with years of practice doing unwanted behaviors to get instantly perfect is setting everyone up for failure.
These first three teaching points will be covered before Madam Tutu even opens her mouth to teach us our first step: she’ll be ready with her undivided attention, she’ll have considered the abilities of her students and she’ll know what she can likely expect based on our age, previous experience and current level. As she starts the lesson, she will, if she’s a good instructor, focus on the following points:
1. She’ll make the dance experience safe and fun. Madam Tutu really wants us to appreciate the joy of ballet, she wants us to improve as dancers, and to do that—we have to come back to class. Learning ballet takes time. If she scares the snot out of us with her autocratic manner, makes us feel stupid, frustrates us by trying to get us to do moves we’re not capable of doing yet, she’ll sour us on the whole dance experience. Instead of being eager to get to her class, keen to learn and excited by our progress, we’ll quit and take up snowboarding or something. What sets really good teachers apart is their ability to engage us in the process of our own learning.
Here, it’s quite different for our dogs—we have a choice about attending Madam Tutu’s class, and if we hate her or her approach makes us hate ballet, we can quit. Our dogs aren’t always given a choice, and if they’re frightened of the class, hate the choke chain and aren’t inspired by the trainer, they can’t just leave. They still quit, though: they’re not going to have the optimal learning experience and they’ll check out mentally if not physically.
We don’t always have choices in life, not us, not our dogs—but as your dog’s guardian and advocate and teacher, this is one you can make on their behalf. Our kids don’t have a choice about going to school, either, but just because they don’t have a choice doesn’t mean we have to tolerate bad teaching. If your child goes to a school where they get bullied, the teacher is incompetent and your child’s grades suffer for it, you’d look for a better school, a better teacher and a better learning experience. The choice may not be between School and No School; the choice can be between a school and learning experience that your child enjoys and is eager to participate in and a misery where they are forced, grudgingly, to learn and soured on the learning experience as a result.
With dogs, this is observable and measurable: simply look at how they respond to the sight of the training tools, the instructor, the training location. Owners report to me that their dogs quickly learn what night is class night, and are waiting eagerly at the door when it’s time to go. I had only to pull out a clicker to set Fox alight with joy. The mere sight of a platform or target stick can bring Tinker running. It sounds so obvious that it’s silly, but it’s much easier to teach critters that are eager to learn than it is to teach critters that are distressed or don’t like the learning experience.
2. She’ll communicate clearly in a way we can understand. If Madam Tutu has been in ballet for any length of time, chances are she knows lots of fancy French terms for different positions and steps. If she’s a good instructor, though, she won’t hurl them at our heads and expect us to know what the heck a la quatrième derrière means. She will, patiently and carefully, introduce the moves one at a time. She’ll probably model each one so we can see it, and then break down her instructions to baby steps: lift the left leg. A little bit higher, good. Now, point the toe this way… lovely! She won’t leap ahead until she’s certain we’ve achieved success with each individual instruction. If we get confused and mistake quatrième derrière for quatrième devant, she won’t get upset or start worrying that we’re trying to be dominant. She’ll slow down and go over it again. She’ll understand that she’s trying to teach us some pretty complicated and unnatural moves, and if we don’t get them immediately, she won’t have a meltdown and start screaming at us in French.
Dogs aren’t just beginning ballet students—they’re a whole different species. We’re often trying to teach them some pretty (for them) complicated and entirely unnatural behaviors, like ignoring food and squirrels and not exuberantly greeting people they’re thrilled to see. Dog brains and human brains are just similar enough emotionally to fool us into thinking we’re on the same wavelength—but how they receive and process information is a totally different story. Just as French makes perfect sense to Madam Tutu but none to us, telling our dogs to do behaviors they haven’t learned yet in an abstract verbal language that is meaningless to them is like howling a la quatrième derrière at the moon and hoping an elegant dance will appear. Dogs need information presented at their level, broken down into bits and pieces they can process, and they need it to be clear and in generous amounts.
3. She’ll keep her students motivated. This is related to her first concern—keeping her students feeling safe and happy—but she also wants them to work. Good instructors know how to get the best performance out of their students, how to encourage and inspire effort and how to reward it so that it continues to increase and improve. Madam Tutu, as a good instructor, will have a keen eye for even tiny improvements and she’ll mark them immediately—yes, yes, much better! That’s right, toes like that! Good, good lift! She’ll also be sensitive to how much and what kind of motivators her students prefer—a bold youngster might appreciate enthusiastic applause, while a shy person might prefer a quiet, “I was very impressed by your improvement, I can tell that you’ve been practicing,” in private after class.
Unlike our ballet students, who are presumably already interested in ballet or they wouldn’t be there, our dogs don’t sign themselves up for obedience classes. They don’t always get the point of behaviors we’d prefer, like staying out of the tasty trash and leaving those pesky squirrels alone. Some of them, like my Tinker, come with “hard-wired” behaviors installed by selective breeding that have them seriously inclined to do certain behaviors and ignore all else while doing them. It’s up to us as good dog instructors to find ways to make our preferred behaviors meaningful to our dogs, to set it up so that our preferred behaviors lead to the dog’s preferred behaviors in some way or another. If we’re really slick, our preferred behavior will become the dog’s preferred behaviors, because they’ll be associated with loads of pleasure, success and squirts of happy endorphins.
There’s tons of science about exactly how this works, and why it works. (Jean Donaldson’s classic dog training book The Culture Clash is an excellent place to start.) The point here is, good instructors are good motivators.
4. Madam Tutu knows exactly what steps she wants to teach and how to teach them. Before she can teach us a pirouette or an Arabesque, she has to know exactly what they look like. How else can she tell, and tell us, if we’re getting right or not? She not only knows exactly what each step looks like, she probably has a well-thought out progression (from easiest to hardest) of each core move necessary to achieve the end result, and a progression for each series of steps. If she’s been in the business for a long time, she may know by heart the exact arm position required of each dancer in the Dance of the Sugar Plums, and be able to spot an errant Sugar Plum elbow from the back of the dance hall. In any case, she’s not making it up as she goes along: she has a plan.
Her plan doesn’t include simply bellowing at us, “All right, everyone, dance The Nutcracker!”
In my experience, this key point more than any other is the undoing of many a pet owner and their dog. Pet owners know that they want the dog to “do something”—or very often, not do something. But exactly what it looks like, they’re not entirely clear.
I suspect this is part of the appeal of notions about “respect” or “dominance” or “leadership”—we hope, if we can just hit on the right emotion, attitude or energy, the dog will start popping out perfect behaviors like the fully cooked casseroles that appear by magic in commercials. This relieves us all of the pressure to become clear about exactly the movement we want, what it looks like and then figure out how to teach it. Not to mention putting in the real work and practice it takes to get there. Maybe dogs can be taught “respect”—but I can’t teach it unless I know exactly what someone means by it. What does “respect” look like?
Behavior is movement. Dog training, like ballet, is a skill: like ballet, there’s technique to it—body mechanics and movements. I have rarely met the dog owner who didn’t want their dog to hold a Sit-Stay when visitors come in the door—what most of them are missing is knowing how to teach such a thing. Unlike Madam Tutu, pet owners often don’t have a clear plan in mind. They don’t have years of experience using an excellent set of tried-and-true exercises, including the progressions for each step, with many different students of different levels and personalities. So pet owners often end up getting frustrated and resort to the equivalent of bellowing, “Fido, dance The Nutcracker! Quick, The Nutcracker! No, no, stop, I said, The Nutcracker!”
I can respect Madam Tutu until I am blue in the face, but I cannot dance The Nutcracker until I’ve learned to dance. Your dog probably adores you like crazy (and if there is such a thing as “respect” in a dog’s brain, thinks you’re pretty awesome), but if they can’t figure out what you want, what they’re supposed to do—how they’re supposed to move—they can’t dance with you.
I don’t know if it’s possible to earn your dog’s “respect” (the brain thing, hmmm) but we can all become better teachers with better behaved dogs. If you want to get your dog on your page, these are the points I would focus on:
1. Give your dog your undivided attention during training sessions
2. Assess your dog as an individual on that day
3. Have age and level-appropriate expectations
4. Make the training experience safe and fun
5. Learn how to communicate clearly in a way your dog understands
6. Learn what motivates your dog and how to keep your dog motivated during training
7. Have a clear plan--know exactly what behavior you want to train and exactly what exercises you want to use to train it