Spoiler alert – getting it right isn’t a fast, instant thing (but it is fun).
There’s been a bit of debate about training methods lately. Sometimes, it helps to peel it all back and ask yourself – what are you doing this for, what are you trying to achieve?
A dog is a companion – you share your life with this companion. Generally, you have your dog to share joy and happiness with in your life; not in order to have a dog but you wouldn’t know there was a dog in the house, or to have a dog to treat it like a lowly member of your platoon, Sergeant-Major. Most people, who love dogs, have them because they look like this in their day:
Training can be a fun thing that you do with them, to share as an activity, and it also involves teaching them things – things that will help them understand this great world, what they need to do to keep safe, how to play (dogs often come to HUHA not knowing about this, incredibly sadly), how to be a fulfilled and a happy part of a community.
No two dogs are the same, just like no two people are the same, so how to train them and what you can ultimately expect from it will depend on you and on them and on the time you are prepared to put into it. Sure, you will quickly get a dog to learn to walk by your side using a prong collar or a choke chain and stop them from doing something you don’t like by electrocution, but they will not be your companion. They will simply be afraid. They won’t be doing it for the two of you, they’ll be doing it to survive.
So you don’t want to injure them and crush them into doing what you want – after all, you love them. You want to mean something to them (as they mean something to you) and use that. When I ask experienced HUHA people how they do it, they all say the same thing – when training, you have to get their attention and you do that by finding out what is of value to them. We’d all like to think that would be us – they would look into our eyes and do whatever we want. Many of the dogs that come to HUHA (and the dogs that many of you generous-spirited, wise people adopt from a sanctuary) have never been of value to anyone before and so people have not been of value to them. They have been owned by people who didn’t engage, who didn’t take the time to understand their dog, so that dog isn’t expecting this wonderful concept of their owner being of value right off. So use something that does get their attention and ultimately, be assured, what’s valuable to them will certainly be you.
Fake it ‘til you make it
You need to be able to walk your dog safely and you need to get its attention long enough to teach it things.
To walk your dog, start with a gentle leader or halti. It doesn’t hurt them but it achieves two main things – they can’t use their weight and powerful shoulders to pull against you and they learn to look to you and defer to you. This is what you are hoping to open up – looking to you for guidance and engagement. You get the result of using a prong collar without the “train with pain” experience.
All dogs at HUHA are trained to walk on a halti – and there is no doubt that some dogs take longer than others to get used to one being on their face. There will possibly be some spirited and ingenious attempts to pull it off with their foot, rub it on the ground and the old surreptitious scraping on passing bushes. Soon, though, they work it out and ignore it. Dogs that have been surrendered specifically because they pull on their walks have quickly learned to walk calmly and properly, simply by putting a halti on them. You can now walk your dog on a lead without being hauled like a jetski to the shops and back and your dog is looking to you for the lead. Do you now have the dog’s will in the palm of your hand? No, of course not. You just have a humane way of sharing your walks with your friend and the opportunity to show them, as you walk with them, the joyous gift of engagement – cuddles, treats, affirmation, love.
Next step – teaching
Teaching will have already started on your walks and teaching will also have started in the kitchen. What gets their attention, what is of value to them? It might be food and it might only be a certain type of food (biscuit, chicken, cheese, lightly crumbed and fried wiener schnitzel with a hint of lemon and herbs). It might not be food at all, it might actually be you, or praise, or a toy. Whatever it is, if it isn’t you, mercilessly exploit it. You want their attention and you want them to look at you. People use food and a clicker to good effect. Click and treat three or four times to give them the idea – then tap near your eye and say “Look at me” and when they do, click and treat. Or just treat!
You are started. Everyone has their own favourite things to teach from here forward – sits, downs, stays accompanied by a variety of hand signals. At HUHA, we have our favourite way of doing this bit, like everyone else, but the key is kindness, affirmation, understanding your beautiful dog and relentless persistence.
A particular thing to note is that some dogs just don’t pick it all up as quickly as others. This does not make them less of a dog or unlovable. You just have to understand them, understand what motivates them and use that. We’ve all met dogs that are wonderful, learn overnight, never forget, never stray from the owner’s side, always come back on recall and the owners seems to do nothing. With some of these dogs, actually a lot of work has gone into it – it hasn’t been an instant thing at all. Other dogs, like people, just have the knack. You don’t have to teach them everything that would get you the golden dog award at the police dog olympics either; just some basics, to keep them safe and happy. You’re having fun with your dog – not other people’s dogs, not the dog you remember from years ago; the one right in front of you who loves you now.
As advised at the start, this isn’t a quick thing and why should it be? You want happiness and love to last a long, long time so learning and sharing does as well. And thank goodness for that. Just remember – it’s a gift you’re giving them and yourselves, teaching them and sharing their lives. And it gets easier the more you mean to them (and doing this will definitely ensure that you mean everything to them)!
(The beautiful picture above and the one right at the top of Mac were taken by Jo Moore of Jo Moore photography).