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5 Rules of Engagement

Engagement is a big part of both sport dog training and behavior modification.

I’m currently training a mobility service dog. She picked up everything quickly at 6 months old and was already doing public access work in a mall. Three months later she wants to play and is trying to start a battle of wills.

  1. Understand Your Dog’s Motives

The first thing to realize is that she is not being stubborn, or trying to dominate me. It is very possible that she doesn’t believe I know she wants to play. She knows the boundaries. But on that day there was a conflict of interest. The problem wasn’t she was ‘washing out.’ The problem was that she wasn’t engaged with me.

2. Be Patient

Engagement is where you are the strongest motivator in the environment. You have your dog’s attention. In this case the dog lost the fun it wanted. We did not go through the stores where she could see all the people. She never got to work, which she loves. And I separated her from the older more experienced service dogs that she wanted to play with.

This didn’t end the behavior immediately, so we went to a quiet place and continued, patiently, repeating the same request for her to remain quiet. No force punishment.

Dog training shouldn’t be about getting a dog to follow a series of behaviors in a set environment. It should be about shaping the dog’s behavior, actions, and reactions in different situations.

3. It is All About Timing

One of the most difficult parts of engagement is understanding timing. Even now, a puppy will come up and touch its nose to my hand. The moment is gone before I even notice the puppy. An opportunity to engage is lost.

Most dogs want to please. If they don’t then you are not investing enough time in building a relationship. Or, your timing is off. You correct too late. You reward too late. Your rewards are too predictable. All of these send confusing messages to your dog.

4. Play and Positive Reinforcement

You are giving your dog time to learn. Your timing is right so that you are rewarding the wanted behavior. You have learned to read your dog’s cues so that you understand why he is behaving the way he is.

Now it is time to start setting a foundation. All your future successes, and failures will depend on how well you play with your dog. Play based training is easier on the dog, and quicker for you. In the first few months you may spend several weeks working up until the dog understands a behavior. But as time goes the dog will learn faster and faster.

Clicker fans often have amazing stories of dogs that learn a complicated series of behaviors in a few hours, or even a few minutes. They have set a good foundation. Their dog understands the boundaries and can work within them to learn what you want. Training is a game.

5.Use Your Dog’s Natural Behavior

Now that you have a good foundation you are ready to start sharpening the focus, and shaping behaviors. Your dog should already learned a few behaviors well. Focusing on you when walking. Returning to you when stressed. Looking to you for confirmation.

You will have learned a few behaviors as well. You reach down to engage with your dog when he comes to you. Your dog stops to look at you and you offer a command, or affirmation. You lose very few opportunities to affirm bad behavior. And hopefully you will have already overcome the desire to punish or correct, instead of repeating the learning behaviors.


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