By Pat Blocker, Colorado Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Peaceful Paws

Basset Hound dog running with his tongue hanging out, approaching a person holding a tennis ball.A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron. – Horace Mann

There is no greater satisfaction than loving what you do. One way for dog walkers to find even more pleasure in the job is a more thorough understanding of their canine clients. We know, too, that approaching every moment as a trainable moment lands us in a place where we’re sure to set our canine charges up for success. For the dog walker, understanding the strategies trainers use to increase behaviors we like can mean greater job enjoyment and walking safety.

How Dogs Learn
Dogs come equipped with certain innate knowledge—instincts designed for survival, such as breeding and hunting. Beyond this preordained knowledge, dogs must learn the rest of what they need to know about life. We are their teachers on the subject of how to live life in the human world.

Dogs learn from environment and experience, as humans do. At birth, puppies begin to absorb information from their littermates, parents, other dogs, and humans. They can learn by imitating the behavior of other dogs, and they will experiment to find out what behaviors work. They learn through the consequences of their actions.

Shaping behaviors we like takes all of these things into consideration and helps dogs learn through opening lines of communication and understanding.

Positive Training General Theory And Principle
Positive: Both positive and compulsory training methods work. However, a positive approach does not damage the relationship between owner and dog as other methods can. In fact, it strengthens it. Ultimately, positive methods not only work but also respect the individuality and spirit of the dogs in our care.

Motivation: A dog must be motivated to offer a behavior. Rewards are motivation, like a paycheck in human terms. Food is a motivator for most dogs, and it is easy to use. However, don’t overlook life rewards like toys, play, exercise, praise, and affection as sources of inspiration for the dogs in your care. Rewards are anything the dog likes. How you utilize those rewards—like tricks up your sleeve—will be key to obtaining results. At times, you will need to increase motivation by increasing the value of the reward. While lower-value rewards (kibble, praise, affection, or a basic toy) work well when distractions are low, more difficult situations require a higher-value prize (liver, favorite ball or squeaky toy, etc.). However, if the dog refuses rewards, he may be too distracted or stressed, and that means we need to adjust the environment accordingly. Making the exercise easier to arrive at success is always a fine strategy.

Mistakes: Sometimes dogs do thing we don’t want them to. You can communicate this to the dog using a “no-reward marker”—a calmly spoken word like “oops” or “nope.” The dog will come to understand this word means he is about to lose out on the opportunity for rewards or fun if the word is regularly followed by the withdrawal of a food reward, the removal of a toy, or a brief time-out by being placed on leash or, if already on lead, by stopping and standing still with no chance for fun. As important as it is to let the dog know when he’s doing something we don’t like, it’s even more important to give him guidance about what to do instead. After interrupting him in his mischief, redirect him to an appropriate behavior and reward that instead.

Shaping/Training In Real Life
Textbooks and scientific research discuss learning theory, methodology, and scientific principles behind the training you’ll need out on the trail. It’s valuable information. However, experiments are often done in sterile, consistent laboratories with animals (such as rats, not dogs) given limited options for their behavior and monitored by unfailingly accurate, data-spewing computers. That is just not the same as training a dog to walk nicely on leash through a park full of tantalizing, taunting squirrels.

In real life, we are inconsistent humans shaping behavior in dogs in an environment with many distracting elements. For those of us with multiple dogs in our care at the same time, our inconsistencies skyrocket. We need to know and understand the science of the laboratory and how to apply it to life with Fido in the real world. Remember that Fido did not read the research and analyze the data. Shaping behavior with both our minds and our hearts builds a bridge between the laboratory and real life.

Training From The Heart And Mind
Successful training comes from the heart as well as the mind, and contributes to the well-being of both teacher and student. For example, I’m currently training a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel for therapy dog work. Leash walking was Copper’s biggest challenge, so we worked diligently on leash walking skills.

One of the skills Copper learned was to slow down on cue when the leash became tight. He was doing beautifully. Then, when Copper hit adolescence, things changed. His leash walking skills began to deteriorate. I noticed that we’d fallen into a pattern where he would hit the end of the leash, and I’d say “Easy,” (his cue to slow down) to which he was unresponsive. I realized that we needed to break this pattern, because if it continued, Copper would learn that “easy” now meant to pull on the leash, not to slow down. Knowing what we are shaping at all times is key. Our dog walkers know that well!

This experience reminded me how easy it is to become confused, frustrated, and perhaps give up because the training isn’t working. At this juncture, we took a step back in order to take a step forward. We revisited the early lessons of leash walking in order to refresh Copper’s memory, helping him regain his former leash walking skills.

The little guy has a lot of heart. Connecting with both heart and mind made for an enjoyable walk on both ends of the leash.