August 3, 2015

Why I'm a Good Dog Trainer

This is the face of a happy, engaged dog. It's my favorite face.

Last month, for the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, I talked about why I'm a bad dog trainer so this month I wanted to explore the flip side of that. Today also happens to be Ruby's 2nd Gotcha Day, and of the myriad ways she's changed my life, one of the most important is all she has taught me about dog body language, behavior and training. While we're nowhere near perfect, we've come a long way in our communication and understanding of one another. I've gotten her through some fears, improved her reactivity to most pedestrians and cars, and implemented management strategies when and where I've needed to. Ruby is a much happier dog than she was two years ago. She wags her tail more often and has the confidence to investigate things she's afraid of. She trusts me to keep her safe and I know our limits. I thought I would share a few examples of things we've improved on lately and what skills I incorporated to do so.

I Give It Time
When I started trick-training beyond the basics, I really wanted to teach Ruby to cover her face with a paw. I would call the trick "are you shy."  The step-by-step instructions in my trick training book suggested sticking a piece of tape or a Post-It note to the dog's muzzle, then marking and rewarding when they pawed it away. Ruby quickly caught on to this and just as swiftly let me know that wasn't going to work for her. She found the sticky note mildly aversive and started avoiding me when she saw I had it in my hand. I tabled the trick for a while, but this spring I introduced it again, breaking it down into smaller steps. I decided I would use DS/CC to change her association to the sticky note, marking and rewarding each time she allowed me to touch her with it, beginning with her neck. As I started touching the sticky note to her muzzle briefly, she started pawing at it, allowing me to mark and reward and thereby capture the very behavior I was looking for. I realized I didn't even have to use the sticky note, and could illicit the pawing action by gently touching her neck or nose. Soon I could fade the physical cue and started using a hand signal (covering my own nose with my hand). This trick still isn't completely solid, but we've made significant progress on it simply by stepping away from it and approaching it in a slightly different way.

I Give My Dogs Options 
Ruby is a very sensitive dog. She is uncomfortable with restraint and does not like the sound of metal (keys, silverware). This makes putting collars and harnesses on with their accompanying tags, snaps and buckles clinking a bit of a challenge. Ruby adores going for walks and knows that her gear is a requirement for venturing out, but if something gets dropped on the floor by some klutzy Ginger Sister guardian or a boisterous Boca bowls her over, we have a setback. What I've learned works best is letting Ruby come to the harness, rather than the other way around. It's less threatening for her, and by giving her the option to "put her stuff on" when she's ready, I've involved her in the process rather than forced it on her. She understands that the sooner the harness is buckled, the sooner the fun begins, and she will nearly always put her own harness on by poking her head through if I just give her a moment.

I'm Here for the Relationship
This is the big one. As much as I love trick training, and as much as I appreciate the importance of obedience (most especially with recall, something we will probably always struggle with, given Ruby's high prey drive and our lack of outdoor space to practice), what I'm most interested in is my relationship with my dogs. I want one based on trust and understanding, with both parties getting a say and striving to communicate more effectively. Last weekend one of our resident rabbits spent some time sitting under the hedge next to my front window, much to Ruby's delight. She normally can't see out of the windows since they are covered with window film, but we've been opening them for the cross-breeze on these cool mornings and evenings. She spent several hours perched on the back of the loveseat, watching out the screen, quivering with excitement, wagging her tail from side to side and fantasizing about how it would taste, no doubt. One evening she jumped onto the back of the sofa, glanced at the curtain, then looked pointedly at my dad and quietly grunt-barked at him. We both knew exactly what she meant - she wanted the curtain and the window open so she could see her rabbit! Would some consider that demanding? I considered it incredibly smart and kind of amazing - another species communicating her desires to another. These moments are outside the definition of training in a traditional sense, but they solidify my determination to keep learning and keep listening, which is what training means to me.

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads, Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month and stays open for a full week. Please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!


  1. Training our dogs to do tricks and obedience is fun and rewarding when they succeed, but seeing them figure something out like Ruby with the window on their own is especially exciting!
    I love the "are you shy" trick too...I bet that is so cute when she does it!
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

  2. I love this post so much! I think it's really important to listen to our dogs and I am trying to get better at it. I'm even including my "bad" cat in the mix and trying to listen to her as well. It really seems to be working. Lilly has not attacked my leg or bitten me in at least a month. Most people don't consider how their animal feels and I wish we could change that.

  3. Your description of Ruby asking you to open the window so she can go on bunny patrol is great! I love it when our dogs reach out and communicate with us like that, especially when we humans actually understand it!
    Interesting that Ruby is uncomfortable with metal noises. Teddy leaves the room when crinkly or clapping noises occur. Even opening a chip bag makes his tail drop as he heads for the door. He doesn't mind eating the chips though!

  4. I love watching our dogs learn new things. They're so smart and clever and it blows me away when they teach me too.

  5. I think it's great how Ruby is communicating with you! Mr. N will do that too. He will very pointedly tap his water bowl when it is empty. Have you tried non-metal collars and harnesses?

  6. I am such a fan of Ruby's, and love the way you write about her. I can just picture her verbalizing that she wants the window open, and I agree with you. Why should we punish a dog for knowing how to communicate what she wants?

  7. Patience is the hard part. Mom is a good trainer for dog sports, but when it comes to obedience, she has no interest so we get a bit lazy with that but we know the basics and that works for us. We actually do practice it when we do photo shoots as it is more fun that way.

  8. I love this post, too! I love seeing you be nice to yourself about training your dogs, because you are clearly doing a wonderful job. I love reading about Ruby pushing her little nose through her harness--I remember what a hard time y'all were having with that last year. I love hearing about how Ruby expresses her needs! And I just love reading about other people who try their hardest to listen closely to their dogs.

    Oh, and DS/CCing the post-it on the nose touch is smart! I've been avoiding teaching that trick because I suspect Nala would find it irritating, and I really don't want to teach her to avoid me reaching toward her face. Now we may have to give this trick a shot, since it would be super cute. :D Or maybe I'll try to shape it...?

  9. I love the last bit about Ruby gruffing about the window. Mauja does that a lot and I think it's amazing. I enjoy that I can communicate what I want to her, but even more that she can communicate what she wants to me.

    Great tactic with the sticky note, by the way. I did a lot of trick training with Kaeto to try and tire him out - exercise was never enough for that boy. We tried to do the sticky note method and he had a similar reaction. He knew "touch" with his nose and "touch" was his paw (I can't remember how we differentiated them at this point) and that was how we figured out that trick.


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