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Teach it, insist on it, enjoy it!:

By Matt Wiggins
06.26.22
dog training (2)

Somebody asked me the other day what type of trainer I am.

I never really know how to answer that question, I’ve never really given it much thought.

I don’t know if you have the same feeling towards your passion but I kind of just get on and do it. I don’t break it down all that much. I don’t have to anymore, I’ve been doing it for nearly Two decades.

Yesterday though, I decided to try and put my approach into words. To get it down on paper, to articulate it in an easier to understand the way that non-dog trainers could understand and relate to.

From my vast experience, when training fails or a particular approach or tool gets a bad wrap, it’s down to misunderstanding and assumptions rather than fact.

The problem I came about when trying to explain my approach in more detail was that I don’t really ever start at the same place. I can’t. I never get the same dog put in front of me twice.

Even when working with the same dog, the animal you have at the start of the training session is a different animal from the one at the end and the dog you have on Monday is likely to be a very different animal from the one you have on Friday.

Training, when done right, is constantly developing, constantly moving, constantly getting you closer to your goal. If your training isn’t working, it’s because you are doing it wrong.

Now, when I first work with a dog, I honestly don’t have a standard approach in terms of what I’m going to teach or how I’m going to do it. I don’t do the same thing every time like most trainers do, I judge the animal in front of me and go from there.

The one thing that I do that is the same every time though, is have the same end goals.

For example, I know that without having a high level of attention I can’t teach anything else.

Whilst everybody else is teaching sit, down, wait for food, stay, etc. I’m just teaching attention.

Once I have attention, teaching the rest is easy. Without attention, everything you’ve taught is useless when you really need it.

The way I actually train attention depends on the dog in front of me. I might do it with food, I might do it with toys, I might use my voice or…I might use pressure!

My first goal, when it comes to teaching a dog anything, is to do just that. To teach it what I want.

Without the dog first understanding what I want, I can’t move forwards.

In just the same way you can’t give a 5 Year old an Algebra test until they have learnt the basics of mathematics, you can’t teach a dog to do advanced exercises such as focussed heelwork, recall, or downs at distance.

You also can’t teach them to be reliable around distractions until they are great at the exercise without distractions.

So, step number One of solving any problem is to teach what you want instead.

You can do this with food, treats, toys or, on the other hand, you can teach it using pressure.

Now some dogs will do anything for food or a throw of a ball. But most dogs, certainly dogs with issues that have already been able to practice doing what you don’t like just don’t have any interest.

That’s why, in my bag of tricks, I can teach everything I need using positive or negative approaches.

I wrote over the past few days about instinct, drive, and how a dog’s work ethic is stronger than most things you can offer it.

This will often be challenged by other trainers however, I make this case, training something when you have the full attention of the animal or when the task is easy is very simple. Literally, every pet dog in the World for example knows how to sit when it’s asked.

Training a dog to do something or teaching it to switch off its instinct when it’s got tunnel vision on the job at hand is a different matter entirely.

If you still aren’t sure about this, why aren’t there zookeepers teaching Lions to have vet examinations with no barrier in between using positive reinforcement?

Maybe because they aren’t domesticated so that’s different?

Ok, so why do Bulls have rings in their nose and when not out with the herd doing their job they are kept in Bull pens and nobody is allowed to enter?

Teaching a dog using pressure or negative reinforcement doesn’t mean it’s horrible. In the same way, I could teach you a certain yoga pose by physically guiding your body into a position so you can feel what it ‘feels’ like I can teach a dog to sit, lie down, heel or recall in the same manner (I can’t do Yoga by the way so don’t even ask).

Anyway, back to the topic. My training approach.

First I teach the dog – I show it what I want.

Then I insist on it – I explain to the dog, in the best way for the particular animal that the behaviour it has learnt isn’t a request.
Then I make sure it’s happy to do it – This is the most important part for me. I want the dog to know certain things are non negotiable but I don’t want an unhappy dog.

It’s not always possible or appropriate to teach using positive reinforcement. It is always possible to teach though.

Generally, the insisting part of the process involves proofing the dog to increasing distractions and helping the dog understand it needs to respond as I’ve taught – all the time. This is usually done with some form of pressure, but, the minimum amount required, delivered with skill. NOTE – it’s impossible to learn when stressed. Stress is not the aim here. We just want the dog to ‘give’ to what we want.

As we move to getting the dog happy doing it following the pressure phase we add food, toys, treats, verbal and physical praise, movement and whatever else the dog finds positive.

The aim, always, is to develop a well-rounded, biddable, responsive best friend that loves to work for you rather than against you.

I’m going to be making some videos about these steps over the coming week or so.

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