To Help Or Not To Help…..

As trainers it’s often difficult to know what to do when our dog is struggling or confused. Many people help the dog too much. The second the dog struggles or looks confused they jump in. Or they stick with early stages of the behavior long after the dog is ready to move on. They feel they are doing the right thing. They are working towards errorless learning. Or they feel the dog is sensitive. Or they want the dog to be happy and do well. Which is great. Except they often wonder why they are not progressing and why the dog can’t problem solve. Helping the dog every step of the way is not a bad thing. Unless you plan on competing one day. Because in that case, the dog will fall apart in the ring. Now I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I had “that” dog. The nervous insecure dog. The dog that froze whenever he had the slightest doubt about what to do. The dog that “couldn’t handle pressure”…at all… Yea. That dog. Years and years of him freezing, my helping him in training and getting inconsistent work in the ring. Until someone pointed out I had become an enabler. A what? Me? What do you mean? I’m doing what?? The truth was I had inadvertently taught the dog that when he’s not sure, when he’s slightly uncomfortable, when he doesn’t want to be wrong, just freeze. Mom will help you. And all will be all. Hmmm…was that really true? I paid attention the next time I trained. Yup, it was true. Now I’m not talking about overfacing or overwhelming the dog. Or setting the dog up to fail.  I’m talking about a dog that had extremely good training under his belt. I’m talking about behaviors that were fluent, in situations he had been carefully taught to handle. He would still freeze. And I realized I had done him a great disservice. I had not provided him with a very, very important and necessary skill. How to push through. I had to stop helping him and teach him to do something, anything, other than freezing. And I did. Slowly over time he learned to push through. And in that process, he changed. He gained confidence. A lot of confidence! And he improved in the ring. Now to be honest, I was less concerned about results. I just wanted him to feel comfortable enough to try something when he struggled. And he did. At first, he gave me the wrong behavior…but it wasn’t freezing! And I praised the heck out of it. Now, I’m sure the handful of people that didn’t already think I was crazy, surely thought I was crazy now. Ummm, hello!!! Your dog just failed!? But Zeal didn’t know that. He TRIED! And I told him that was brilliant!! And eventually he was able to push through and give me the correct behavior. And went on to work at a very high level at big tournaments… As you can imagine, I’m now a big proponent of teaching dogs to problem solve and push through in the early stages of training. Again, I’m not talking about pressuring or overwhelming the dog. Or letting the dog fail again and again. I’m talking about letting them figure it out. Get out of their way. Stop talking and gesturing. Stop giving them a million treats. Stop panicking when they are trying to figure something out. Give them some credit. They are smart. They can do it. Let them solve the problem. We all know it feels AMAZING to figure something out or achieve a challenging goal… why then are we taking that away from our dogs? They feel the same way!! Too often I see students throwing cookies at the dog the minute there is a struggle. Or they throw their hands up in a panic. My dog’s not getting it! What do I do? Or lamenting “my dog is slow, confused, not happy, not having fun”…maybe, or maybe they are just processing. When humans learn new skills, they are slow. They make mistakes. They must concentrate. They don’t learn it right away. It takes time and repetition. They struggle. And we are fine with that. I mean, as trainers, it happens to us all the time. But the minute our dogs do that, we panic. Calm down! Take a deep breath! It’s fine! Your dog is learning. Let them learn. Your dog is processing. Let them process. Your dog is problem solving. Let them do it. They may offer the wrong behavior. That’s ok! Sure, if they are totally stuck, don’t let them flounder. But most of the time, that’s not the case. We are jumping in way to soon. Competing is hard. Your dog needs to be resilient. And yes, that can be taught. It should be taught. And the place to start that is in your everyday training. From our dog’s perspective, training is a never-ending learning process. And learning has clear stages. Learning does not go from zero to fluency in the blink of an eye. So relax. Recognize and understand the process. And let your dog learn. And let them problem solve. A little struggle creates confidence and resilience. And THAT feels good!! And THAT will serve your dog well in the ring.