As someone who would describe himself as a positive trainer, I am sometimes more successful at being positive than at others. The word positive has many layered meanings in the world of dog training. When discussing the principals of operant conditioning the word positive is meant in the mathematical sense as the addition of something. Often we use the word positive to distinguish ourselves as “dog friendly” trainers who don’t use positive punishment or negative reinforcement to train dogs. However, there is another layer to the word positive that has direct bearing on training (and for that matter every other part of our life) — our attitude.
I was chatting with Nicole Silvers of Silver Sky K9 the other day and of course our conversation turned to our dogs. Although we both talked about the positive aspects of our dogs, we were also very quick to point out their shortcomings. The next time we chatted, she had already agreed to be a guest on my Woof Wednesday series. When I asked her what she would like to discuss in the article, the subject of our previous chat came up. Her observations gave me some good food for thought. If we go into a training session with our minds focused more on what a dog can’t do vs. what they can do; are we setting the stage for negative results? How much does our mindset going in affect the outcome of a training session? What are the ways in which we can set ourselves and our dogs up for successful collaborations? Some interesting questions to be sure and ones that I feel are relevant to us all. So Nicole, how about it?
Going into a training session focused on performance, rather than focusing on and appreciating the dog’s cooperation and effort, may be setting the stage for negative results. However, identifying a gap with the purpose of “filling” it, is essentially positive. It’s proactive. For me, what makes the difference between this viewpoint being constructive or destructive is how the awareness of the gap affects the handler emotionally. Is this dog a failure because the gap exists? Is the handler a failure? When a handler begins to experience impatience, disappointment, frustration, being at a loss for what to do next, and identifies the dog’s weakness as the cause, then the door opens for “fixes” that deal more with alleviating the human’s emotional state than addressing the dog’s weaknesses. As a trainer coaching humans, drawing a handler’s attention to what is going right is an amazing, and unfortunately esoteric, strategy for stopping a handler’s “downward slide”. As a dog owner and trainer evaluating my own handling? I’m just as inclined as everyone else to focus on the weaknesses, and expect too much of the dog and myself. I’ve learned the wisdom of taking my own professional advice, but I do find I am relentlessly self-improving. And, instead of bemoaning my tendency towards perfectionism, I choose to credit it as part of the reason for times I have been successful. I admit, it really tickles me when I see how hypocritical I am. I’ve learned to look at what I tell others, and try to apply it to myself.
Where I see the effect of mindset most dramatically is not so much in a “training session”, where most of us are in a fairly Accentuate-the-Positive state of mind, but in the Real World. People who have dogs that “don’t like other dogs” or “are afraid of other dogs” tend to interact with their dogs on the premise that those labels are true, rather than acting like they have a basically normal dog, perhaps in a temporary state of anxiety or agitation. There is a marked difference between the body language and behavior of people who have “normal” well-behaved dogs, and that of people who have “problem” dogs.
I like that you use the word “collaboration”. I think it’s a common misconception that most owners want to “dominate” their dogs. Most dog owners want eager, willing cooperation, and only resort to “domination” tactics out of fear, ignorance, or retaliation. (Dog trainers might have some ego at stake, so their motivations might be a different story…) There may even be some belief that “domination” will help dogs “do it out of love for me”. But people want that love, that respect, that collaboration. Collaboration is built on letting go of whatever mistakes happened in the past, letting go of whatever gaps exist, even letting go of your ideal behaviors, and focusing on meeting, embracing, and enjoying your dog where s/he is, in the present. In a training session, keeping a positive attitude on both ends of the leash may mean alternating between “difficult” and “easy” tasks. Lowering your criteria for reward, accepting a “sloppier” version of what you are teaching, can also be a way to turn “difficult” (or low probability of success) into “easy”. Yet a third way is to invent a different strategy to elicit the behavior you want. Facilitating initial success is the place for gimmicks and shortcuts in a training program, even if they won’t work effectively in the long run.
In the Real World, I’d like to see us work on not mentioning in conversation the things that aren’t worth mentioning. Is it really worth mentioning in introducing them that our dogs are “fearful” or “aggressive” or “not good with other dogs”? Certainly, we wouldn’t introduce our human friends and family that way! “This is Tom. He’s very possessive of his food, especially ribs.” “Say hello to Susan. She’s snarky, but we’re working on it, aren’t we, Susan?” I hope that what stops us from doing that is not just our consideration for Tom’s and Susan’s feelings. I hope we genuinely see Tom and Susan as more than their unwanted behaviors. I’m not suggesting we let our dogs’ troubling behavior slide. I’m saying that we should act to address the behavior, but talk about what is encouraging, what makes us love them, what they are good at. By emphasizing the dog’s identity as a good, valuable, appreciated friend, rather than as a problem whose needs are a burden for us, I think we are inclined to work with our dogs in a much more supportive, patient, cooperative, and beneficial way.
And finally I would like to add to what Nicole has said with this. Thinking in negatives tends to foster inaction. It’s much easier to skip that 5 minute training session when we don’t project a positive outcome. Using the techniques that Nicole mentions here allow us to plan for and conduct a successful session. And even when a session doesn’t end in the success we expect, there is always success in the attempt.
We welcome your comments and invite you to share you stories of success with us here.