Much is said about responsibility in dog training. There is putting responsibility on the dog and there is putting responsibility on the handler. There is putting responsibility on the trainer and there is putting responsibility on the instructor/coach of the handler/trainer. Very often you will hear someone ask "was that me or the dog?" and often you hear the response "it was you because you are both the handler and the trainer." But there is the concept of putting responsibility on the dog to make decisions. In herding it is a balance (no pun intended) to have the dog read the livestock and make decisions on where to move based on what their eyes see which are much more perceptive than ours. In agility I want dogs to perform behaviors such as contacts and weaves with only a single cue from me and to be responsible for completing that obstacle correctly while I go ahead and cue the next obstacle or two. Responsibility has to be learned by humans and by dogs in order for it to be accepted.
Now over the last few years, as I continue to grow and learn as a dog trainer, handler, instructor and coach I am seeing other layers of responsibility. I am seeing as an instructor and coach that I have more and more responsibility for educating students about the emotional state of their dog. I have always picked up on dog's discomfort in training but not always known what to do about it. The more tools I learn and the more I am willing to try things on my own, I am less willing to let dogs be uncomfortable in situations in which I have responsibility. I accept that responsibility as an instructor/coach that it is my job to educate a student about signs that their dogs is not comfortable. It can be difficult to hear because we all want our dogs to be happy and comfortable all the time and we want the dogs to like the same things we do.
As a trainer and handler of my own dogs I am even more aware of signs of discomfort in my own dogs. I have learned to be an advocate for my dog and I work hard to put what is best for them ahead of my own selfishness. This is not always easy. To be willing to walk off of a start line because your dog is not comfortable there or is too excited to think is not easy. To be willing to train in the ring many times in order to build confidence in your dog or to help them learn how to stay calm and focused rather than frantic and mindless is not easy.
I spent two days at a seminar that focused on dogs who love toys but are not engaging in cooperative toy play for one reason or another or on teams who are trying to improve their cooperative toy play. Watching the "tells" that the dog is uncomfortable while running around with a toy in their mouth or watching when a dog bites hard on a toy and when they dog not bite hard was fascinating. It was also fun to see a dog's attitude change when the person changed how they played. In the past the trend to create a lot of frantic, high arousal tugging has caused many people to stop playing all together with their dogs because they were getting bit and/or they did not like the effect it had on their dog or caused other people to continue to play even though their dogs are not thinking clearly. To see how quickly over a few sessions the dog's emotions about play could be improved and become more positive was great. It is a new layer of responsibility for me to watch for signs of conflict, discomfort, environmental pressure and other things which can impact play as well as training in dogs.
I just love playing with my young Border Collie who has known only cooperative conflict-free toy play. She loves her toys, loves working for them, can hold her head together in the presence of the toy and is so much fun to train with toys compared to other dogs I have had. While she is my second dog trained like this from the start, she is the first one to get this far along in her training for me to really see the benefits. I have retrained two other dogs but there is still baggage from prior training that haunts us. I now have two younger Australian Shepherd puppies who are learning cooperative toy play. One loves any toy in her mouth more than food and her litter mate sister loves food more than toys. They are both at very opposite ends of the spectrum about anything. I am learning a ton by training them this way and troubleshooting our issues. I love to spend a third of my training time just on toys and reinforcement cues. I am less frustrated playing with them and I get to learn what my dog likes instead of imposing on them what I want in the game. It is also giving me a way to learn their signs of discomfort in a setting that is far less stressful. It is another way for us to communicate with each other.
My hope for 2019 is that more dog trainers will take responsibility for watching their dog's emotional state when training and trialing. I want dog trainers to think more about how their dog feels about things and less about how they themselves feel and less about what they want from their dog. After all this is what dog training is all about right? Developing a communication system with our dogs. We just need to accept responsibility for being better listeners to our dogs instead of just talkers. Once again what we learn with our dogs could be applied to each other...
Happy New Year!