Winning is contact with the handler

At the end of the agility course the dog has scurried and climbed, weaved and tunnelled, jumped and run all the way back to the handler. The excitement of hunting down the handler needs absorbing into contact of some sort. Initially, the enthusiasm to run and chase culminates in biting the prey. Being prey-like draws the hunter in, creates the challenge to chase and bite. Our movements around the course build that thrill, directing the hunt in and around the obstacles, hopefully in the right order, demanding and frustrating the hunter with increasing complexity as they become more proficient. But the hunt ends, the prey can no longer escape, and the win is not found in a rosette or shield. Winning is in the connection with the prey, contact with the handler.

Many years ago, at Cranleigh Agility Show I ran my super-fast super-sharp dog “Boo”. It was one of his first ever shows, and he was a liability in public. He came to me instead of going to the vet for “the last visit”. He had a police record for biting too many people: kids on bikes, postal workers, anything that moved quickly. His owners were lost, not knowing how to proceed. He was too fast, too sharp, too much trouble. Puppy classes and clicker training failed them, he would still bite in a panic. So I thought I’d save him, and took him home instead of letting him go anywhere else. He was a collie, and I’d had collies before. How hard could it be?

At the time, before discovering Natural Dog Training, I channelled his enthusiasm into plenty of crazy work. Chasing games, agility, clicker training, super quick obedience. I thought he needed to be trained better, more effectively, I needed more control. But he would still bite the wrong thing at the wrong time. I didn’t realise I was creating more of a charge, electrically fizzing energy that needed to find a lightning rod. I failed to soften and soothe his nerves, failed to create a magnetic feel and continued to super-charge his sparkiness. It wasn’t that I wanted a bite hazard, I just didn’t know any better. I worked hard at everything people tell you to do but was pushing the wrong boulder up the wrong hill. People still get it hopelessly wrong, they still give all the same advice, and there are plenty of dogs like Boo who suffer. Dogs that find the lightning rod when it’s not expected, that bite “out of the blue”, a culmination of stress piled on through well-intentioned training.

At Cranleigh Agility Show I knew I needed to keep Boo safe, to save him from the excitement of everyone milling around. Therefore we’d been working on a recall, a super fast recall, one that would work anywhere. I’d also seen how other people often lose their dogs to other distractions even though they had taught a recall, failing to fasten a lead in time, and in agility the dog couldn’t wear a collar. So we took our recall to another level, super safe control, a jumping recall, safe into my arms. Boo had practised this, and we were ready. A round of nerve-wracking agility, guiding the little exocet around the course, then super safe control, jumping up to be caught, whisked away from biting the judge (which apparently doesn’t help your chances). Everything was planned and under control.

Except the excitement was over-whelming. The show was like practice sessions with the volume turned up, and Boo could feel the thrill. I don’t really remember the agility. It was probably fast and accurate, in fact we might still have a trophy to pick up, one that’s gathering dust unclaimed in the Cranleigh club vault. All I remember is him jumping up into my arms and biting me. It wasn’t a serious bite, just a bite. He was excited and he bit me. Of course he did. And of course it should have made me stop doing what I was doing, but we carried on, back to the training, back to what everyone else was doing. I didn’t figure it out for many years. Sorry Boo. But I remembered.

The challenge as I see it now, is to be able to soften the dogs after they get super excited. Channelling into a bite, but not directly. The game to be enjoyed is one of “stay with me, play with me” on the finish line. Pushing in for contact, softened with food and touch. How much can the dog handle? How much energy can this connection carry before it is then taken to a toy? The final grab is then projected to a bite toy which can be paraded around and applauded. Winning is contact with the handler.

A puppet on a string

Keeping a dog at the right place for a bark is a balancing act. There needs to be enough movement forward because we want the projection into the food. However, too much projection leads to a jump. Sinking back and away is too circumspect, we want a reaching out, probing, on the verge of launching. Moving in not away.

The connection needs to be maintained, so I’ve found it often ends up feeling like trying to dangle a marionette on its strings. If the dog rises up, the hands and food can be raised, as if trying to keep the strings taut. We want the dog to pull back down to the floor, because he needs to feel more collected. If he can bark, the food is pulled in. The precursors to the bark can be licking, snorting, burping, sneezing. Listen to the breathing, it can help to feel connected. Like the Big Bad Wolf, with a huff and a puff he can bring the food down.

The master of puppets can make the marionette dance, light on the feet, but secured to the stage, not floating loose in air or dragging on the floor. The connection is invisible but can be felt in the synchronised movement and action.

Collection

Natural Dog Training is not about training behaviours as such, it is about constructing a situation in which the dog can exhibit its internal strength and fortitude, its power and control. These are then rehearsals for life, they help develop and enhance the skills needed to deal with the world. One of those skills is to feel collected or composed. Physically a dog is collected when its weight is sunk into its rear and there is a certain amount of spring available in the limbs, especially in the back legs, for propulsion and acceleration.

Encouraging a dog to collect and gather its strength, poised and ready to pounce, uses a combination of hunger or forward motion, and balance and composure. It’s the mixture between accelerator and brake. For this reason the easiest way to start is to begin with following food, engaging the power or accelerator. If the dog is willing to follow the food you can then introduce an edge or precipice, past which following the food would prompt a fall. The toppling feeling engages the brake.

When the two forces intersect there is a balance, an equilibrium point. There is a sweet spot at which the dog wants to follow but holds steady, and the power sinks to the rear. This sinking power often results in a sit, as the rear end tucks under ready to power forward. Starting on a raised surface with an edge presents a real physical problem for the dog to solve, helping him discover the moment of control.

Once the sweet spot has been reached, equalising the forces of hunger and balance, the dog becomes even more entrained to the movement of the food. If the dog makes any forward motion, if reaching and nosing ahead occurs, the food responds with a darting flight out and away from the dogs muzzle. Fast acceleration away, then smooth rhythmic steps back in. The motion of the food mimics a bird taking flight when approached too quickly. The dog feels a connection to the food, a visceral reaction to the vitality of the food. The food seems alive in a responsive way, alive and reacting to the movement and action of the dog. If the dog can only be still the food will approach, closer and closer. Delicious torment, a tantalising temptation that’s resisted and enjoyed. Then the food can be delivered into the mouth to complete the cycle of wanting and then getting, ready to want again.

Here are some quotes from Kevin Behan’s blog at naturaldogtraining.com,

I began to notice that dogs who were good at being collected, began to interact much better with other dogs. A dog would run up to them and they would absorb this momentum and their tail would begin to wag. They weren’t feeling pressured but sensually energized. I believe this is because the exercise strengthens their subliminal beam of attention on their hind end and the enteric nervous system, which I consider to be the social brain and the instrument of emotional grounding.

When you teach a dog to collect, he’s learning to focus his subliminal beam of attention harder and harder on his hind end (when a dog’s weight is back here he can pivot in any direction and this indicates to other dogs that such a dog can absorb their momentum because he’s poised to shift his center of gravity, hence such a body configuration is calming to other dogs—-this is for example what’s happening in the play bow, the dog is maximizing his preyful aspect with his butt in the air, i.e. he’s concentrating his energy on his hind end).

I start on a box and simply deny the dog the food until it settles back on its hind end, most dogs will sit. Then I guide it into a down (suppling the shoulder blades as well) and then get to the collecting proper by going in and out along an axis before the dog’s snout, vibrating my hand with the food akin to a small bird about to take flight. The dog begins to focus more and more energy on its hind end trying to keep the “bird” from taking flight.

once the dog has a strong settling back on haunches impulse from the box work, you can go to the ground and again imitate with your food hand the bird about to take flight, the palm is open but the hand is quivering and occasionally darting away only to immediately return, the dog begins to settle back and drops into a down/pounce position. That axis I refer to is a straight line before the dog’s jaws, running as an extension off its eye-snout direction. Don’t move from side to side or up and down, move the food hand back and forth on this axis.

Kevin Behan. 2013. Indiana Conference Note Two. [ONLINE] Available at: https://naturaldogtraining.com/uncategorized/indiana-conference-note-two/. [Accessed November 2017].

The Difference at the Natural Dog School

There is a very big difference between dog training at the Natural Dog School and at most other training schools. First it is important to understand the approach other dog training professionals take. Almost universally they believe that the laws of learning are inviolable, and repeat the mantra of rewards and punishments. Some become more dogmatic in their view that either rewards are the only way or that balance between the two is critical. All however are convinced that behaviour is something to control, using increasingly scientific and sophisticated methods to achieve their goal. Dogs need to be taught how to do things, they have to be socialised, and dog owners are cast in the role of arbiters of right and wrong, we choose the behaviour. There is a mistrust of the very nature of the dog, a sense of coercion, manipulation. We are therefore fighting against the flow, pushing upstream. It’s a battle with the forces of nature, trying to tame the heart of the dog.

The laws of learning however are not true laws, they are not based on physics or maths, they do not really work. They do give a quick approximation, but it’s important to understand their limit. We are dealing with a complex adaptive system of which we are a part. A quick example of this complexity might help,

A certain mother habitually rewards her young son with ice cream after he eats his spinach. What additional information would you need to be able to predict whether the child will:

  • a. Come to love or hate spinach,
  • b. Come to love or hate ice cream,
  • or c. Come to love or hate mother?

(Bateson, 1972, p. xvii)

Learning occurs on many levels, and is not something that can be imposed with certainty. As the “laws of learning” are used to an increasing extent there is a point at which the system will break.

…any system based on the control of behavior through the use of rewards (or, of course, punishments) contains the seeds of its own destruction. There may be a temporary period, lasting even for many generations, during which some exciting new system concept so appeals to people that they will struggle to live within its principles, but if those principles include incentives, which is to say arbitrary deprivation or withholding at the whim of human beings, inexorable reorganization will destroy the system from within: nature intervenes with the message, “No! That feels bad. Change!”
—William T. Powers (1973, p. 269)

What Natural Dog Training attempts to do is work with a dog’s natural drives and enhance their stability, robustness and predictability. We want to encourage a character of strength and flexibility, confidence and adaptability. These are internal traits that can be developed and the core exercises of Natural Dog Training do just that. They are skills to practise not behaviours to learn.

 

Bateson, Gregory (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press

Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The control of perception. Chicago: Aldine.

Fireworks

As we come up to Bonfire Night the challenge of firework phobias in dogs is once again for many people a very prominent concern. Dogs seem now to be more sensitive than ever before. I know how distressing it can be watching a beloved pet struggle with fear and anxiety, so there must be a way to deal with it. There must be a way to help them cope and teach them not to worry. How do you encourage a robust response?

If you look on the internet the main advice appears to be plenty of exercise, plenty of food, then create a bolt hole or den, shutting out and drowning out the intrusive noise and lights. All fairly sensible, uniform and often repeated recommendations. There is very little suggestion of helping the dog at a deeper level, trying to tackle their over-sensitivity. For dogs that are not scared there is sometimes a vague suggestion to play, if they want to, creating positive associations with fireworks. But I believe most dog training professionals are stuck with the root problem and don’t know how to tackle this deeper issue, the underlying fragility.

If you look at another common response to fireworks you’ll find dogs that want to chase and attack the fireworks, barking in excitement. The owners’ complaint here is how to stop the crazy outburst, how to calm them down, obviously owners who have never struggled with a quivering wreck. A robust response to fireworks would surely be closer to this, a dog that wants to act out is less likely to suffer an internalised collapse. I would rather an active and excited reaction, one that can be tamed and soothed, than an escape driven phobia where the escape is impossible.

Lee Charles Kelley writes about curing thunder and firework phobias by using barking as a way to release the fear stuck in the dog’s body, giving it a way to fight back and feel stronger, more resilient. This and getting a dog to bite a toy and carry it around is the way to change the dog’s emotional reaction. It encourages a robust response to life’s scary intrusions. By working on the dog’s sensitivity it reduces the over-reaction to fireworks and shows the dog it can feel in control.

https://www.leecharleskelleydogtraining.com/single-post/2017/06/29/Curing-Thunderphobia

http://www.apbc.org.uk/press/fireworks_bonfire_night

Sour Grapes

Too often dogs are like Aesop’s fox with the grapes. The fox wants the grapes but can’t reach them. Feeling upset she walks off and blames the grapes, saying that they were sour and unpleasant anyway. Some dogs have learned to not look at a piece of food, already blaming it for the uncomfortable feeling of being pulled off balance, and therefore deciding that they do not want the food. As a puppy there would simply be desire and we must strive to help the jaded dog return to that pure state of desire.