One of the biggest obstacles we have in training our dogs is stress. To be successful, it is important that we learn to recognize the signs of stress in ourselves and our dogs. Why? Because stress interferes with learning!
Recognize the signs of stress
Neither people nor animals learn well when stressed. More importantly, it is never acceptable to knowingly cause stress in our dogs.
As trainers, we need to monitor our own stress also. Our dogs know when we’re stressed. They are masters at reading our body language and moods. Nothing will deflate a dog’s enthusiasm for learning quicker than their trainer’s stress, frustration or anger.
Also, if you’re stressed during a training session, you’re more likely to miss signs of stress in your dog. Each dog shows stress differently, just as we do. Learn how your dog shows stress. One of my dogs starts chasing dragonflies when she’s stressed, another one flicks his tongue, yet another sniffs the ground. A few of the more common signs of stress to look for are:
- Tongue flicking or nose licking
- Lack of eye contact or turning away
- Slow tail wags or tail tucked
- Stiff body
Ideally, we want to completely avoid stress when training. Never start a training session if you’re in a bad mood, had a bad day or are preoccupied. You won’t be successful and what you may teach your dog is that training sessions are punishing and to be avoided.
Keep your training sessions fun
When people are training their dogs to do tricks, such as roll over or shake hands, they are happy. They have a good time and so do their dogs. The dogs learn quickly and are eager to do more. But, when these same people start to train other behaviors such as agility, obedience or manners, they may become very serious and stop having fun. It shows in their attitude and that of their dog.
Remember, just because what you’re teaching your dog is important doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun to teach and to learn. Your dog doesn’t care that it’s important. Your dog cares that you’re playing another fun game. Keep the same happy attitude in training agility, obedience, manners or whatever that you use when training tricks and your dog will keep the same happy, eager attitude when doing them.
Know when to stop
Since none of us are perfect, there will be times when we inadvertently bring stress to our training sessions. When you realize that you’re becoming stressed or that your dog is, stop your training session and do something fun. Play fetch, do tricks, give hugs and kisses, anything that you know your dog will enjoy and that will release the tension from both of you.
Before you go back to your training session, figure out why your dog was stressed. Perhaps he didn’t understand what you wanted. Remember, English (or any other human language) is not natural for our dogs. Perhaps you were stressed and your dog picked up on it. Perhaps you attempted or repeated the exercise too many times. Some dogs don’t like repetition. Instead of improving, the behavior will become less precise. Your dog may shut down if they are asked to repeat something too often. Learn your dog’s limits.
Nothing is more beautiful than to watch a happy dog doing what their handler asks. Work towards that performance by ensuring that both you and your dog enjoy training sessions and look forward to working together.
I know I’ve had a successful training session when I’m ready to end it and my dog looks up at me with a smile asking to do more.
Be kind to your dog and yourself.