Animals prefer calm humans. With a calm human, they can feel safe. Volatile, unpredictable people may cause anxiety in dogs and anxiety isn’t conducive to a good learning environment. When we’re training (especially a new behaviour) it’s really easy to become frustrated; we might not get the exact behaviour that we were hoping for, we might not even get close or we might think the dog knows it, only to find he suddenly doesn’t. We might feel let down or a little embarrassed.
Reacting to our disappointment by reprimanding the dog (yanking, giving a harsh ‘NO’ or showing frustration in other ways) is the exact opposite of what is needed because the dog may become anxious, either right away or next time they are put in a similar situation. Of course, this makes the job of getting that behaviour even more difficult and prevents the dog from enjoying the process.
We are, however, human, and it’s extremely difficult to never show frustration, even if we know the problems it can cause. But recognising that we slipped up is a good thing, it’s a very good thing. It’s what allows us to learn. If we don’t recognise the frustration or the fact that it might be counterproductive then how can we ever improve?
So how can we deal with it when our canine friend isn’t acting as we expected them to?
- We can treat it as information. The dog is doing a great thing; he is showing us that in this situation he may sometimes respond in this way. It’s just information and we get to enjoy working on changing how he responds.
- If we recognise that we are experiencing frustration or acting in a way we don’t like then we can take a break, think about it when we’re in a calmer state and try again another time.
- We can recognise and celebrate that this is a living, breathing, animal that we’re dealing with, not a machine.
- We can try to recognise that it really isn’t the dog’s fault. How many times do we hear dogs called stupid when, in fact, in the cold light of day we might better understand that the error is more likely to be ours. Maybe we asked too much, didn’t recognise the dog’s stress, didn’t proof the behaviour or didn’t recognise something in the environment affecting the dog.
- We can say to ourselves, wow, I wasn’t expecting that behaviour, how can I best respond? I’m pretty sure your answer will not be, ‘with frustration’. It is actually a great opportunity to think about how to deal with such situations in future.
- Mindfulness can also be of great benefit. This is the ability to be aware of what is happening right now, without judging it as good or bad. It’s the ability not to be blown around by our emotions. Daily meditation helps us to develop mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, it shouldn’t be complicated. Just set aside 15 minutes per day, to sit, concentrate the mind on your breathing and notice as the air comes in and goes out. Each time you find your mind wandering onto other things, you simply bring your focus back to your breathing. Each time you return your focus to breathing, you’re teaching the mind to more easily return to a mindful state. I couldn’t hope to do justice to the subject of mindfulness and/or meditation here, so it’s just a brief mention for those who may want to find out more. Audio Dharma is a great resource if you would like to know more.
- Is what you’re teaching really worth the stress? What’s the worst that’s going to happen if you don’t nail it today? Wouldn’t you prefer a happy dog who feels safe and trusts you not to be reactive and unpredictable? Move on to another (no pressure) activity so you can both end training on a positive note; you can always return to the original task another time.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read