A Handler’s Guide to Working Effectively With Your Dog
By Sean Knudsen
Dogs have lived with us for thousands of years. During this time, they learned to read and understand our micro expressions. What this means is that you cannot hide your feelings, attitude, or mood from your dog. You need to be genuine with them. If you are not in a good headspace, or are trying to pretend while something is upsetting you, you are not going to have a very good training session with your dog.
Dogs can help us in a lot of ways. They are always present; they don’t care what happened yesterday or what tomorrow may bring. By effectively working with your dog, you too can live in the moment. You will say what you mean and mean what you say. Your words, tone of voice, and temperament will match your physiology.
There are four things that you can do to best maximize your time with your dog. Those things are: your state of mind, being fun, communicating clearly, and following through. By properly learning and using these principles you will build a positive relationship with your dog and get the most out of you and your dog’s potential.
State of mind: I’ve mentioned that your dog can read how you are really feeling. If you are in a bad mood, you will generally get one of two reactions from your dog. They will either fear you, or they will want to rub up against you. If they are timid or fearful, they may avoid getting too close to you. Even if they have no history of abuse, they just want to avoid that negative energy. Other dogs may want to rub up against you. We think this is them comforting us, but more likely it’s an appeasing behavior letting you know they are not a threat. Neither of these are conducive to having a productive training session or experience with your dog.
To get the most out of your training and build a better relationship with your dog you need to be in the best frame of mind possible. Some things to consider trying are working out, doing yoga, meditating, praying, reading, or getting out in nature. Obviously, this is not a self help guide, but I would encourage you to explore some of these options, find what works for you, and add that to your daily schedule. If not for you, then do it for your dog. Statistically, dog owners live longer than people without them. One of the reasons cited is that they are more active because their dog gets them to go out more. Maybe your dog can also help you be motivated to improve your mental health, too. Every time you work with your dog, try to be in the best possible set of mind. Choose to be confident, relaxed, and happy. Your dog will respond very well to this, and you will both have an incredible experience together.
Be the most exciting thing in your dog’s life: This instruction has two parts to it, first is engagement, second is praise. If your dog is out all day playing with kids or dogs with no expectations, then it’s probably not going to be that excited to train with you. Your requirement is to engage your dog. Some dogs will try to avoid engagement if something is more exciting and less intimidating. Before the training session we want the dog to be bored. We do this by using the crate as a management tool. Have them spend some time in it each day, especially before you train. A great option is to crate them over night then after they’ve gone potty in the morning go into a training session. That is when they are typically the most likely to be engaged.
Now that you are managing your dog’s distractions and energy, you need to be better. And by better I mean worse. You have to act like an idiot. You need to be fun, energetic, and look like a complete moron. If people don’t look at you and think you’ve lost your marbles you are not doing it right. By acting silly and funny you are building confidence in your dog. They are getting such powerful reinforcement that you are happy with them, that they will be extremely eager to please you. You are their biggest cheerleader. I heard of a test for military dog handlers where the candidate walks into a room with several evaluators holding clipboards and taking notes. They put an ammo crate in the middle of the room, and one of the evaluators in a very serious tone would say “this ammo crate just did a good job, praise it.” The soldier has to then praise the crate for one minute while the evaluators are looking serious and taking notes. If you can’t be ridiculous enough in front of your peers, you are cut from the program. We need to do the same for our dogs. Think of it as another liberating mental health exercise. To be the best handler you can, you must stop caring what other people think.
Communicate clearly: Focus on one task at a time. I see so many new handlers that get completely frazzled, and start whipping out so many commands that the dog becomes confused and frustrated. A really common one is they tell the dog to sit, but it doesn’t. So they go on to heel or down, basically seeing what the dog will do rather than continuing with what they asked. If you are working on a sit, that should be all you’re working on. That’s all you reward. Be very patient, and do not move too quickly. Patience and clarity will be your best friend when training.
Follow through: To get reliability from your dog you will need to be firm, fair, and consistent. Being firm does not mean harsh, it means do not give in. If you do not want the dog on the table, do not let them get on the table. (I’ve been in someone’s home and seen a 120 lb dog jump up on the table, LOL. Most households would frown on that, but the dog sure loved it.) If you don’t want the dog on the table, couch, or whatever rules you have, you need to be fair about that. You can’t have one person in the house that allows it while everyone else does not. Or sometimes you are too tired, so you don’t say or do anything when you find them doing something they’re not supposed to. It’s not fair to let them get away with it this time, and then get mad next time. This leads to insecurity, frustration, and anxiety. The more consistent and clear you are about the rules, the more relaxed and confident your dog will be. If it’s confusing and everyone has different rules and expectations this creates chaos, stress, and anxiety in your dog. This can manifest in many different ways, and most of them are very bad.
I hope this helps. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook. We want to help you be the best possible trainer and handler that you can be. To learn more about our process you can check out our online training program, or if you’re interested in becoming a professional dog trainer check our school in the links below.
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“Do Dog Owners Live Longer?” Www.Heart.Org, American Heart Association, 7 Oct. 2019, www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-bond-for-life-pets/do-dog-owners-live-longer#:%7E:text=Dog%20owners%20have%20better%20results,especially%20if%20they%20live%20alone..
About the Author
I have had dogs all my life, but it was not until after a year-long deployment to Iraq that I truly learned to appreciate just how incredible our canine companions really are. I absolutely love training dogs and seeing people’s lives become more rich and complete with their now stable and well-behaved canine family member.