Patience, Grasshopper!

I suppose it’s dating myself to refer to a TV show from the 60’s, but I really enjoyed KUNG FU with David Carradine.  My favorite parts were the “flashback” scenes in each episode.  The lead character as a boy would always be getting very frustrated with some old monk who would serenely smile and advocate figuring it out and not being in such a hurry for results and/or answers.  When it comes to training dogs, I’ve found that old monk’s advice to be priceless.

Let me illustrate with something that happened just last night. At bedtime, I brought Kita and the current boarder in from their potty-stop.  Kita, knowing the pocedure trotted right in the living room, waiting for her bedtime milkbone.  The boarding dog, having been here many times before, also knew a milkbone would be forthcoming.  As is my custom, I tossed the boarder’s milkbone in the crate where she would be sleeping.  She just looked at me blankly. 

Now, I had several choices:  1) try to shove her booty in the crate, 2) try to lure her into the crate with treats dropped closer and closer, 3) give up and let her sleep outside the crate, or 4) wait to see what she would do. 

Many times, as trainers and with our own dogs, we get in a hurry and try for what we think will be the quickest solution — #1. However, that most often results in playing a dog’s favorite game — KEEP AWAY.  (For more on this, see my blog “Don’t Play that Game!”)

When chasing doesn’t work, we often default to solution #2 — bribery.  Now, don’t get me wrong, judicious use of bribery can be invaluable!  However, I pick and chose my times for using it because the dog isn’t learning anything, except how to manipulate a human.  And dogs are quite smart enough to recognize what that game is and play it as long as they are in no danger of actually DOING what you want them to do.  So, often, frustrated, angry and tense (Oh, my!) we just give up and (the #3 solution) the dog gets what it wanted.

Last night, I chose #4 and just waited to see what the boarder would do.  She knew very well that the treat was in the crate and that I was waiting for her to go in so I could shut the door behind her.  She looked up at me, then peered in the door, and repeated those two steps a couple of times.  I simply stood and didn’t say anything, keeping a pleasant expression on my face. 

When she didn’t get anything from me,  the boarding dog did a little circle, moving away and then closer.  She offered to go inside the OTHER crate (the one not set up for her) and I must say I considered it, but quickly rejected the idea.  Not getting a response, she gave a couple of demanding barks.  (This was a good sign, she was getting frustrated!  Dogs learn from frustration!) So, I told her the treat was in the crate and encouraged her go get it!

More staring at me and the crate.  Suddenly, she sighed — Dr. Stanley Coren says that’s Doglish for “I give up!” — and calmly walked in.  She didn’t try to run in and grab the treat and scoot out again, either.  She know she could have the treat and the door would shut and that would be the end of fun and games (and warm laps in front of the TV) for the night.  Oddly enough, she didn’t even fuss more than a little whimpering — and this particular boarder traditionally throws a bit of a hissy at bedtime.

More and more, I’m seeing the benefit of patiently waiting; standing by and letting the dog figure it out, and making the decision.  If the dog doesn’t respond to a well-known cue, I don’t keep repeating the word, but turn my back for 5-10 seconds.  Then, turning back, I make sure the dog is paying attention and repeat the command — just once.  It’s amazing how much more attentive most dogs are when their chance to earn a reward has “gone away” even for just a few moments.

I could list example after example, but it all comes down to “Patience, Grasshopper!”  Whatever your frustration with your dog is at any given time,  stop and take a deep breath — or several!  Remain calm and upbeat and let the dog figure it out.  If she gets a bit frustrated, smile more because she’s learning!  When she does figure it out, instantly reward with praise!  If she doesn’t “get it” — start over.  At the worst, you’ve spent a couple extra minutes. Even at the worst, you’ve remained in control of the situation and only rewarded behavior that you want to see repeated.  That’sdog training in a nutshell, Grasshopper!

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