Alert: Boring blog post on dog training contained herein. If dog training bores you as much as it bores me, just keep scrolling. If, however, you want to hear about my miraculous success that occurred because I actually read a book on dog training, read on.
But first, a series of caveats and reminders.
1. I love bad dogs.
2. I stink at dog training. See #1.
3. I am allergic to repetition and structure. See #1.
4. I love seeing my dogs act like dogs. Dogs are carnivorous predators. I enjoy watching them push themselves to their edge, trying to get what they want. Usually what they want is bad. See #1.
5. Not much makes me laugh harder or more delightedly than my own foolishness. See #1.
6. Maybe chaos. That might be the one thing that makes me laugh harder or more delightedly than my own foolishness.
7. I hate being told what to do. I hate being told how to do things. I would much rather spend an hour trying to puzzle out how to fix a problem than spend 10 minutes receiving instructions.
8. I am allergic to reading the [bleeping] manual.
9. To summarize, I am temperamentally unsuited for the task of training dogs. And yet I am surrounded by dogs, and seem to always be on the verge of getting one more. Big, unruly, intense willful dogs. As someone said to me after about one week of watching me with Iske: “that ain’t no Labrador retriever.”
I strongly believe that dogs and children only display the “bad behaviors” their owners/parents have chosen to accept (ok, there are probably exceptions to that blanket statement but you get the gist). I know that’s true for me. My human child is a kind, disciplined, smart young woman… who likes beer and has tattoos and a facial piercing. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
My dogs? I only require 3 commands. They are not up for discussion. I don’t know how I train them to obey these three commands, but I do know if that if they are not performed perfectly, every time, the dog loses his or her freedom. Period. These three commands are recall (the come command), leave it, and some version of wait or stay. I yell your name plus come, and you drop everything and race to me like your life depends upon it. I say leave it and you eject whatever is in your mouth as if I did a doggie Heimlich maneuver. And I say stay or wait or hang on (like I said, I’m a terrible trainer) and your paws are cemented into the earth where you stand.
I use positive methods to train these commands. Sometimes. When I remember. I never carry treats. I never carry a special toy. I think doing so would be a great idea, but my life is pretty nutty. If I remember to wear pants I’m doing good, y’know? Remembering a dog toy in case I might need it later is a once a year occurrence. Sorry good dog trainers but that’s my reality. My positive reward is a kind word and a pat on the head. If I can hold the dog still long enough to offer one. My dogs really don’t seem all that invested in receiving an external reward – being with me, doing what I want is reward enough.
The truth is I have no idea how I trained my dogs to obey me because 1) they obey me so well so much of the time, I can’t remember any process. There’s a reason for that and I’ll share my secret. But as my husband says – these dogs make me look good. 2) I’m not sure how much actual training ever really took place. I spend a huge amount of time with my gang, and I meet their needs, and in doing so we form a relationship. And 9 times out of 10, my dogs do what I ask because of that relationship. No training, no technique, no operant conditioning. More like a deal. I do for you, you do for me. Dog trainers probably are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads by now, but that’s pretty much how I function. My dogs behave perfectly by my earlier standard – they only make the mistakes I have decided are both permitted and adorable.
My secret is that I chose to live with Belgian Malinois dogs. This breed will leap into the fires of hell for their person. That’s the most basic breed characteristic that sets Malinois apart from other breeds. Terriers are amazing ratters. Snow dogs will run pulling a sled forever. You don’t need to convince them to do these things. Maybe add a little structure, a little window dressing, but a normal healthy, average terrier, snow dog, greyhound, or border collie has a set of normal average strengths that you can reliably expect. Doesn’t mean there aren’t outliers that don’t have the normal breed traits, but those are exceptions. The norm for a Belgian Malinois is that he or she will leap into the fires of hell for their person. They live to do your bidding. “How may I serve you?” is their motto. Channeling all that willingness and intensity is easy… if you are willing to meet their needs. How to meet a Malinois’s needs is a whole blog post unto itself, but for our purposes here, let’s just assume that you can and will do so. That box checked off, you have a prescient, willing, scary-smart, scary-athletic partner at your service. No wonder I look like I can train dogs – it’s like teaching a genius to read Dr. Seuss. The challenge is keeping up with them.
So today I was walking all 5 dogs off leash in the woods when the two with the highest prey drive went off tracking something. Noses glued to the earth, both dogs were heading for a rocky outcropping. I hustled to see what was up and realized that the dogs were heading for a porcupine den. No, I’m not some sort of Nature Girl (Porky Adams?) that naturally knows this stuff. I learned about what porky dens look like because I had to pull one of my dogs out of one by her tail last winter… face full of quills. I know – you’re thinking “well, didn’t you break out a leave it command? How about a recall?” No, I didn’t. I gave no commands at all. My bad. I didn’t see where the dog was headed and didn’t realize what was up until it was too late. My lesson – pay better attention.
So now I have two gonzos headed for a porky den. I call one – she comes immediately. I call the other. He ignores me. I call again. Nope, he doesn’t even look up. Now I have to reveal another layer of dog communication we have established here. Not all come commands are created equal. If I just yell your name, that’s not a formal come. It’s a suggestion. If I yell “come on,” that’s also not a formal come. Similarly, “let’s go,” “this way,” or “hey you” – all suggestions to join me on my merry way, but none are a formal command that must be obeyed. I reserve the formal command for situations when I’m ready and willing to enforce. I was suggesting and nagging Hawk (gonzo #2) but so far I hadn’t broken out the formal “Hawkitt, come!” Why? Because I thought chances were good he wouldn’t listen. I won’t give a command if doing so will only serve to underline my impotence. I was still thinking about it with Hawk – the internal jury was still out.
Patricia McConnell in The Other End of the Leash suggests that calling a dog should be enticing, like an invitation to play, rather than like a drill sergeant. I read the book last winter, and reading it overlapped with adopting Hawkitt. Thus he got the benefit of my incorporation of this one tidbit that wormed its way into my brain – call the dog nicely, using a playful, high-pitched voice. For Hawk, I developed a special call – more of a bird call than a human voice call. I yell Hawk-HAWK in a high pitch, and it sounds like a crow cawing. And it works like a freaking charm. I yelled my crow-Hawk call and his head jerked up like I’d yanked it. He traded his agenda for my agenda. Really, when you think about it, that’s amazing.