Don't Overcomplicate Your Dog Training
“Stick with the simple things. Build on the simple things. Always go back to the basics.”
This is one of my favorite pieces of advice to give to people about working with their dogs. It’s one I learned while training my service dog.
Dog training is time consuming. It’s emotional. It’s frustrating. It’s those things because we tend to fill it with a lot of human things, like needing to have a lot of different words to identify what we perceive as different things.
Canines are complex to be sure, but not in the same ways that we are. They can say dozens of things with a flick of their ear, but they don’t need a dozen words to know that you want them to follow you.
We all teach our dogs the basics, or at least we try (most of us, anyway!): sit, stay, down, come, okay-fine-be-a-little-shit, etc…. All of those things are how you get to the bigger, more complicated tasks. When I trained Buttons, I built on the basics. You build down from sit, stay from down and sit, and they learn “come” from a hell of a lot of food.
In our house, stay is an emergency command. We use wait for most things. And “wait” is one of the things I used to build his scent-related impulse control (but that’s a story for a different article, but we played the Popcorn Game a lot). As a service dog, Buttons can’t be sniffing everything. He shouldn’t be sniffing in stores and he shouldn’t be sniffing outside without permission when he’s working.
But, sniffing is important for dogs. Service dog or not, Buttons needs the enrichment sniffing provides. So, how do I give him that without compromising his work ethic?
The cue for being allowed to sniff is simple. I loosen the leash and say “go on.” He doesn’t need any encouragement to put his nose to the ground. Getting him to stop sniffing once he was permitted became a challenge.
I’d give him a high value treat and then tell him “okay, enough” and expect him to follow me…. And he’d go right back to sniffing. So we worked on it some more as I tried to show him that “enough” meant “stop sniffing and let’s go.”
He was not getting it. I was getting frustrated, which made him confused and both of us unhappy. I put myself in a place where I wasn’t ready to teach and I put him in a place where he wasn’t ready to learn.
So I went back to the basics. “What do I want him to do?” Stop sniffing. Yes, that’s it, but is that really what I ultimately want him to do?
No. I want him to find me more interesting than that thing he wants to do.
And then my brain clicked a few times and there was my answer. He already knows how to do what I want him to do. What I want him to do is come with me.
When that clicked in my brain, everything changed.
So why was I trying to teach him this new thing when he already knew exactly what I wanted him to do?
Because I’m human and we like to overcomplicate things with words. But dogs aren’t like that. Dogs don’t need those complications and separate labels for essentially the exact same thing.
That revelation was more valuable than I can convey. We have to trust our dogs and we have to trust the foundations we’ve given them. That trust and those foundations will carry us through more than we think.