Canine behaviour is something that we still need to learn so much about. As owners, groomers, trainers and behaviourists, there is always more to learn about the dog. More so in the last 15-20 years, and the more our dogs live alongside us as pets, the more scientific research and understanding has come about. In the old days of balanced trainers or even worse, aversive trainers, sadly some still think these methods are ideal to handle and train your dog. Dog behaviour is a huge topic, I could write thousands and thousands of words and not even touch the surface. But what I can hopefully do is enlighten you to ways of working with your dog in a positive way to get the end results!
I went into training and behaviour because my own dog was so traumatised by a groomer visit. I wanted to know why that had happened and how I as an owner could make it a better experience for him. Dogs are individuals, not just ascertained by breed or type. What one dog finds traumatic such as fireworks, might not even bother another dog. But why? Positive association and reinforcement goes a long way with this. The more we as humans help our dogs (notice I didn’t use the word expose) to understand that a situation is positive and that they are safe, with lots of verbal praise, high value rewards, the more likely we are to get a repetition of that behaviour. Go on try it. If you’re out and about and your dog has terrible recall, try recalling them on a long line with a hot dog and see how much better their recall is. Then try recalling without an offering of something valuable and see how less of a response you get. Building positive associations is crucial to learning for dogs, and we as humans are more likely to get the results that we want without the need for force, commands, being authoritative, shouting or other aversive methods.
Using force free positively reinforced techniques is the way forwards. It’s scientifically proven and has evidence to back it up. Even old school trainers are coming round to the science. But what is it? Force free is about the dog making choices and us working with them positively, and us as dog guardians understanding behaviour more and allowing the choice (within reason). By conditioning our dogs using cause and effect, a behaviour brings about a reward, and the behaviour is more likely to be repeated. Or by counter conditioning a behaviour that was previously learnt (jumping up was reinforced by attention) by substituting an alternative behaviour (asking for a sit and being rewarded for being calm and on the ground) becomes more rewarding than the previously learnt behaviour.
Take the grooming salon for example. You rock up, drop your puppy off with a new groomer and pick them up afterwards smelling all pretty and looking less like they’ve been rolling in fox poo or running through hedges (my own experiences!). The groomer says they were naughty, or growled but that’s not at all because they’re naughty, or are a danger. It’s because they’re scared and don’t know what is going on! Imagine being 12 weeks old, taken somewhere by your human and left there. That in itself is a huge deal. You’ve already been taken away from your mum a few weeks prior. Now throw in a new strange human, a salon that smells like lots of different dogs and hormones and scents, then a bath, a blow dryer, scissors, clippers... You see where I’m going with this. It’s all experiences that sometimes us humans forget can actually be really traumatic, and the only way the dog can tell us that they’re scared is by wiggling out of it, growling or even biting. Communication is a massive part of our relationship with dogs. They are constantly communicating with us, and reading our signals (even if we don’t know that we’re giving them off) to work out what’s happening.
Think of it like a bucket that you’ve filled with triggers that might get you upset or angry. The more we add to that bucket, such as slow drivers, an idiot pulling out, someone taking your spot in the supermarket car park and then finding out that the supermarket has run out of loo roll, it’s safe to say you’d be pretty mad. The more we add experiences to that bucket, and the more negative experiences, the more likely we are to go over our threshold. And it's the exact same with dogs.
As an owner yourself, you can help. Teaching cues such as a solid sit, stay, down, paw, chin rest and stand in different environments or extending the duration of each cue will be uber helpful to your groomer. Switching on the hairdryer at home, brushing your dog effectively and handling their paws and feet often so that the dog becomes accustomed to it. Build up positive associations with your dog as you go. Hairdryer goes on, reward comes out! Dog starts to think, actually this is ok, there’s nothing scary and I’m getting a tasty reward for it too. This is a process of desensitising and gradually becoming accustomed to the stimulus (i.e. hairdryer) that previously caused fear or a reaction. You can of course fade out the rewards when the dog has become conditioned to the noises or paws being handled, but not too early. Reinforcing the behaviour that you want and redirecting the behaviours that we don’t want is so important in dog training and behaviour.
Never be embarrassed as an owner to say that you need help. Speak to your groomer, vets, trainer and if needed a behaviourist, but find one who is ethical and only uses force free methods. The more positive experiences your dog has and the positive attitude from you, will absolutely nail your relationship. It is scientifically proven. Never be embarrassed to stand in a field giving praise. Your dog is more likely to understand that they’ve done the right thing!
We have so much to learn about dogs. The best we can do is learn from our own dogs and our experiences, and how to make their lives (and in turn ours) happier, safer and stress free! The science and our dogs tell us so.