Assistance Dog, Mental Health

Things I’ve learnt in life through training my dog

Tonight on Channel 4, there is a new programme set to air called “Train my baby like a dog” where dog trainer and behaviourist Jo-Rosie Haffenden applies dog training reward techniques to working with kids. Already there have been controversy and mixed reviews about this show – a lot of it probably stemming from the show’s title, which really adds to the shock value (and at a guess, the show won’t exactly be as it says on the tin!).

As a currently childless, single woman with an assistance dog I can’t really comment on wether or not elements of dog training really would help toddlers and children be better behaved or have better boundaries and relationships with their parents. However, through working with Lexi, my assistance dog, and learning all the positive training techniques to help improve the way we communicate and help each other, it has taught me some important lessons in the way I treat myself and others around me.

  1. Focusing on the positives and rewarding good behaviour: One of the main aspects of what I have been taught around dog training is that it is really important to reward any behaviour the dog does that you want to see (e.g. picking up an item), rather than just punishing and shouting at a dog when they do something you don’t want (e.g. running away from you to chase a cat). As someone who is so used to finding the negative in everything, this was really difficult to put into practice at first. But eventually, seeing every little tiny positive and my dog’s reaction to that when they realised that action was what I wanted, made me feel so happy inside. It made me realise that sometimes it is good to celebrate even small achievements, no matter how many times you have done them, with gratitude – “Yes!”, “Well done!” or “That’s amazing!” – and with no expectation of what you need to do to improve. Far too often we are quick to find and jump on the negative behaviour and miss out on the positives as a result.
  2. If things don’t go to plan, try again, but set it up for success: Many times when working with Lexi, particularly when trying to teach her something new, it can get really frustrating when she ends up doing behaviours you don’t really want to see – e.g. not coming back to me when I blow the whistle to recall. The temptation is to shout at your dog to “come here” in an aggressive, stern manner. However, what I’ve learnt is to wait your dog out and try and call them when they are not already focused on something else (e.g. a smell in the grass). When they eventually do what you ask them, try it again, but this time, set up the situation to make it easy for your dog to succeed, and reward them for it, so that it gives them the confidence and understanding of what to do next time instead of making them fearful and more likely to ignore your cues out of fear they will be shouted at, or because they won’t be getting a reward (as last time they didn’t when it wasn’t successful), so why should they do as you ask? This type of reaction and consequence (with rewards for doing positive actions), I feel can utilise in my own life. Far too often, things don’t go to plan, and it makes me anxious to even try things again, but maybe if instead of berating myself about it, I could try and restore my confidence by doing a small part of that task (e.g. cleaning the bathroom sink rather than focusing on cleaning the whole bathroom) and rewarding myself for it, and building up my confidence bit by bit.
  3. Break big tasks down into small steps: When training an assistance dog to do a new task, we break it down into really small steps and practice 1 step at a time, only moving on to the next step when we are certain the dog grasps the 1st step. An example of this is getting a dog to put a toy in a basket. The first step could be to reward the dog (with a ‘click’ and a treat) every time they put their head over the basket. The next could be rewarding the dog when they lower their head into the basket. Eventually, you will end up putting each step together, each step being a new link to the chain of the task. If you move on to the next step and the dog struggles to grasp it, instead of ending up with you both frustrated and bored of training, go back to the previous step which the dog could do well and enjoyed, and most importantly, end that training session on a positive with a big reward for doing something good! This is something I have incorporated in my own life, particularly when I’m feeling stressed, depressed or anxious. It can get really overwhelming having a big task or goal in front of you, but by breaking it down and working on each small part (not forgetting to reward yourself with a break, something nice, or positive words after each completed step), it makes it a lot easier and gives you more confidence the more positives you see. If you find a step too difficult and stressful, end on a positive and complete something (no matter how small) which you know you can do well.
  4. Live in the moment: Probably the most important lesson I still continue to learn from Lexi and other dogs every day is how they just seem to live in the moment, hold no resentment or ruminate on the past and future. Every morning Lexi wags her tail and is so happy to see me. If she hasn’t seen my parents in a couple of days, she goes crazy with excitement as if she hasn’t seen them in years. Lexi could happily sit by the front door and watch the world go by if she wanted, finding new sights and smells in familiar environments every day and enjoying it. She smiles back at me, wanting me to share in her excitement too! Dogs get excited to get the same kibble for their meal every morning and evening. I wish it was as easy for us humans to be excited about eating any old food! Maybe if we took a leaf out of the dogs’ book, life would be just that little bit happier as we could find the small bits of excitement in the every day.

Note: Although the training methods I discuss, may be used by Canine Partners, the views and opinions expressed here are not those of the charity itself.

2 thoughts on “Things I’ve learnt in life through training my dog”

  1. Very well put Charlotte !!….and so very true. We all need to learn to focus on the positives in our lives and not be dragged down by the negatives. xx

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