Sarah and Matt are new clients. They are a lovely young newly married couple and have elected to welcome a wonderful yellow Labrador Retriever puppy into their home and family. Neither has ever raised a dog from puppyhood into maturity before. This was a concern for them, but a gift for me. As a trainer, a blank slate is fantastic. Like with dogs, it’s always easier to teach clients desirable behaviors than it is to fix bad habits which are firmly entrenched.
Their young puppy was very shy his first night at class. He refused to come down the stairwell into our facility. He spent much of his first class sitting under his chair, quietly watching the events surrounding him. He was terrified of Cuba and the lovely young Chihuahua girl we had in class that night, so he got clicked for watching them calmly, approaching, sniffing, allowing himself to be sniffed, and for any behaviors mimicking a semblance of play initiation.
Despite his apprehension, Fifer learned quickly. He was targeting, offering sits, greeting people politely, giving wonderful focus, playing impulse control games, and readily accepting handling from the people in class. At the very end of his last class, he play bowed at his new Chihuahua friend. After a brief (10 second) interaction, we ended class for the day, leaving him eager for more. The last words that Sarah said as she left the classroom at the end of her first class were, “I had no idea how smart he was, and I hardly expected I’d have so much fun!”
The next time Sarah arrived at the classroom, she told me that Fifer practically pulled her arm off trying to get from the parking lot into the classroom. This indicated to me two things:
- Sarah needs help learning to use the life reward of entering the classroom as “real life reinforcement” for polite leash behavior
- Fifer started out being terrified of the classroom and now could not wait to enter the classroom
Both items are common. Owners need to learn to use real-life rewards and take reinforcement out of the “training session” and into real life. Often initially, fearful dogs are afraid to enter the classroom; but once they realize how much fun learning can be, can’t wait for class and don’t want to go home when class ends!
Our techniques and methods revolve around making training a game for dogs and their people – the most fun a dog owner can possibly have interacting with her dog. Training should be like play. If you AND your dog are not having fun, you’re not doing it right. Training shouldn’t be a bore or a chore, it should be something to look forward to. If it’s not, the training plan is broken – the owner won’t want to follow through, the dog won’t want to respond to the owner.
I read a fantastic article on CNN today, Want to get your kids into college? Let them play! This article is written by professionals who educate teachers on the art of education at Harvard University. Interestingly, both of them speak to the importance of emphasizing play as a training tool. Their argument revolves around using play as a mechanism to teach human children how to control their impulses, behave appropriately, interact politely and fairly with both peers specifically and society generally.
In part, the article reads:
Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children to imagine walking in another person’s shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success.
The real “readiness” skills that make for an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation.
This is not just true with raising human children appropriately, but dogs as well. Learning to challenge your dog through training which is based in playing with your dog expands cognitive function, increases impulse control, fosters improved relationships, and helps balance a dog emotionally and behaviorally. Where harsh corrections shut down neural pathways which foster new learning, play opens these pathways while assisting in the development of new ones.
If you want to learn how to make training feel like play and play evolve into reliable, enthusiastic focus from your best friend, apply for training today!