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Human emotions in dog training

‘He only came to me after I called him 5 times, so he doesn’t deserve the reward!’ Often I notice people are not willing to reward their dogs for good behaviour if they feel frustrated themselves, which negatively affects the behaviour of their dog. Let’s dive in a little bit deeper.

Picture this, your dog is off-leash running around in the dog park. Your alarm goes off, it’s time to return home. You start calling your dog, commanding him to come to you. But he keeps playing with the other dogs in the park, completely ignoring you.

In utter frustration you walk over to your dog, grabbing him by the collar, jerking him away from the other dogs and telling him how bad of a dog he is for not coming back to you. You put on the leash and leave the dog park, embarrassed because he wouldn’t listen to you.

From your point of view, you told the dog that you wanted him to come, which he didn’t, so you grabbed him and forced him to come. By telling him how bad of a dog he is, you think next time will be different. Let’s just look at this from the point of view of your dog for once. He is running around, playing with some other dogs, when he hears you calling. He remembers last time, when you came to him, yelling at him, jerking the collar, leashing him and leaving the dog park. So in his eyes, the two choices are:

1. Returning to you which results in you yelling at him, jerking his collar, leashing him and leaving the dog park

2. or, keep playing with the other dogs, which is fun.

Seems like an obvious choice, isn’t it?

Unlike us, humans, dogs don’t have agendas to follow. They just enjoy the moment. This means that when training a dog, you too should live in the moment.

We tend to hold onto emotions for long times. We still feel angry because of what someone said to us weeks ago. Or in this case, because a dog didn’t listen moments ago. In a dog’s mind, this is already long gone. Now how to use this for dog training:

Let’s take the first example: Your dog is once again running around in the dog park, playing with other dogs. Just like last time, he doesn’t come when called. Before walking up to your dog, make sure to have a reward at hand. This can be either a toy or a treat. Walk up to your dog and call him when you are close to him, you can gently take him by the collar. Now reward him for taking a few steps to you. Even if you needed to take him by the collar. Because of this, coming to you is no longer the bad choice, it’s just another good choice. You forget all of the ‘bad’ things he did beforehand. Your reward comes right after the good behaviour, so this is what your dog will remember.

I also often call my dogs to come back to me, just to release them again. This way they learn that coming to me doesn’t necessarily mean they will get leashed, although my dogs love the leash.

We’ll use another example to give more perspective:

You’re training your dog. His ‘sit’ command is already pretty reliable. But unlike other times, today he’s distracted because of the agility course a few terrains further. So you ask him to sit and he doesn’t. You ask him again and again and only on the fifth command, he finally sits down. Now, in frustration, you say: ‘He can do better than that, so he doesn’t deserve a reward.’

You let your emotions about what happened previously overrule the fact that your dog did do what you ask. Your dog was really distracted, having a hard time to stay focused on you and when he finally managed to get his focus on you and do as you ask, he didn’t get a reward. On the contrary, he got a ‘sigh’ and he knew you were disappointed. But he did as you asked, so were you disappointed about him sitting? Because that was the last behaviour before he saw your frustration.

See how this can be pretty unclear for your dog?

When training your dog, make sure to leave your emotions behind. Your dog doesn't look at the world from an emotional point of view. He just lives in the moment.

Acknowledge the good behaviours and redirect the bad ones, forgetting everything that happened before.

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