A big concept in training dogs is to find a way of getting the dog to perform a behaviour, then reinforcing that behaviour so they are more likely to perform it again. Once we can predict the behaviour will occur, we add our cue word and Bob’s your uncle. However, this often leaves us trying to persuade a dog to do more than they are comfortable with or more than they can understand.
Let’s take nail trimming as an example. Imagine the dog isn’t keen and we’re trying to clip or grind their nails. Our goal might be to trim all the nails on one foot; that’s what we want; that’s what we have in mind when we pick up the Dremel. But guess what? The dog isn’t worried about our needs or our goals; If they don’t like having their nails done then they’re feeling anxious the moment you pick up the device.
They’re at level 1, but we’re working at level 30. This mismatch is a common problem in dog training. Countless times, I see dogs being persuaded or cajoled into behaviours they’re just not comfortable with. Because of the anxiety this causes, real learning rarely takes place. These dogs often continue to need cajoling, or they do the behaviour, but their body language isn’t happy and free; it’s slightly stiff and anxious.
The quickest way to learn is to learn slowly. It’s the same for us humans; we can see that trying to learn the capital cities of every country in the world would be difficult in one day. We might succeed, but we’d probably be mentally exhausted, and by day 3 we’d probably forget them again. However, what if we learned one city per day, and each day we recapped those learned. Now it seems doable, doesn’t it?
So, don’t be in such a rush. Work with the dog you have in front of you now; not the one you want to have. If a dog’s slightly anxious of you holding the nail trimmer, that’s what you work on; then you take baby steps toward the final goal.
Above all, don’t be your dog’s source of anxiety – be their friend.