At the end of this blog is a link to an interesting study and well worth a read. It talks about clients having confidence to use positive reinforcement to train their dogs.
I am always aware that clients who have reactive dogs can have their confidence worn away by continually having to battle with their dog's behaviour, often along with having to deal with the attitude of members of the public when their dog is reacting. It can be exhausting and humiliating, especially if a "well meaning" member of the public decides to weigh in verbally on the problem.
I can empathise with my clients because back in the mists of time before being a trainer I've been there, done that with a German Shepherd, which ended up with me being a "Midnight Dog Walker" to avoid it all.
When I get a new client with a reactive dog, I want to see exactly what happens when the dog reacts. So the client and I will go out somewhere in order for me observe the behaviour. On a number of occasions, the dog does not behave as badly as I thought it would. The client will often say something like "oh well that's murphy's law isn't it? Now I'm out with you, he's not doing what he normally does and now I look silly".
My reply is usually this:
"I think the reason the dog is not behaving as he usually does is indeed because you're with me. Because you are with me, you may feel less stressed and more relaxed because you feel that if something happens while we are together I can show you how to deal with it or take over. As you are more relaxed, and less stressed, this goes down the leash to your dog and affects his behaviour too. That's because most reactivity in dogs is due to feeling anxious and worried and if you are anxious and worried too, that just makes your dog more likely to react".
I explain how our dogs can sense when we are nervous in the subtle, unconscious things we do; tighten the leash, start breathing a little faster, maybe stress hormones are produced by us and we might sweat a little. All these are signs to the dog that we are worried.
One of the main things I try to instill into my clients is confidence. Showing confidence in their voice, body language; the way they walk with the dog.
If they are less stressed, it's easier for them to use positive reinforcement techniques because basically they are in a frame of mind to be able to think about what they are doing, and remember and practice the protocols I have already taught them. This is instead of having a frightened and stressed knee jerk reaction which can often be to yank the dog by the collar and leash, and drag the dog away, sounding scared themselves by shouting, or waving their arms around, therefore heightening the dog's leash reactivity.
When I go out with a client and their leash reactive dog to do some real world training, firstly we run over the protocols that I have taught them previously. The client has already learned from me about desensitisation and counterconditioning and we've practiced it. Before we actually move away and start walking I give them a pep talk. I say:
"OK, so we're going to be confident on this walk. We're going to have the attitude that everything is going to be just fine, and we aren't going to have any issues. We're going to have a purposeful step without hesitation. You're going to have a calm and happy confident voice which will make the dog feel more secure. You know what you need to do if you meet another dog and I just want you to put what you've learned into practice. I'll be just behind you to remind you what to do if you forget, and so there is no need to worry about anything".
I've found that reassuring the client and reminding them to be confident actually works really well.
I've seen clients with no confidence at all at the beginning, just decide to "go for it" on that first walk and they've been amazed how it works. Very often there's less reactivity from the dog, but even if the dog is reactive, the client feels more able to deal with it. Once they start to see success with their training protocol, the client's confidence grows and again, that affects the training outcome.
If I can really instill that attitude into the client then I know that when they go out without me, they can keep it up.
One of my favourite things about this job is being able to help clients who often feel quite helpless and at the end of their tether when they first consult me to realise that they CAN do it!
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