In my last post I talked about how important it for me to use training methods that can be applied across the board, with minimal adaptation, for all dogs. Setting up systems of learning around the average individual can be dangerous because you are going to fail every other individual on either end of the spectrum.
Using an Inclusive Approach
The amazing thing about average individuals is that almost anything works for them. So why should they be the goal posts? Training should start with a very wide base, and be refined to the individual as you progress. This can be demonstrated by the LIMA model, which I adhere to, which stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. I start every client out with the same basic exercises, whether it’s an 8 week old puppy, or a dog with a bite history. These foundations aren’t “obedience” exercises, they focus on three basic skills that I’ve boiled down to: 1) the handler is a home base, 2) don’t rush toward things you want, and 3) relaxing feels good. I believe every single dog needs to understand these concepts before you can move on to solving any other problem. For the dog to truly understand these concepts they must be broken down into small pieces and reinforced in such a way as to communicate what you want the dog to do. The dog has to have a choice in the matter, because when choice is taken away, the dog is simply performing a series of tasks based on specific cues. This sort of training will break down over time, or you will be stuck micromanaging your dog for the rest of their life. If you teach the dog what behaviors are reinforcing, and give them choices in the learning process, you will create long lasting behaviors.
When choosing a trainer, it is important to find someone whose methods work for all dogs. The problem is, most trainers will tell you their training methods work for all dogs, so how do you know who to trust? My decision in methodology was made through my own experiences in many years working with dogs, because that’s how I tend to do things, but if you are looking for trusted resources there are several. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has the previously linked position statement on LIMA, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has several position statements on training, including those on dominance theory and the use of punishment in training. If you are trying to find a trainer to help you solve a behavior problem with your dog, make sure that their methods fall in line with the most current evidence in animal behavior and training research. We know so much more about how animals learn, and how behavior is changed than we did when many of these traditional, punitive training methods were popularized. If your dog falls outside the “normal” range on the bell curve, find a trainer who is skilled in applying these methods with very basic foundations that can build into a significant behavior change.
Redefining our Expectations
It’s okay if your dog isn’t average. Let me repeat that – It’s OKAY if your dog isn’t average. There are so many special and amazing dogs out there that don’t come anywhere close to that middle range we call “normal”. These dogs make great companions for people whose lifestyle fits their needs, and sometimes they are able to teach their humans something about how they might view the world differently. Average isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it just is. Dogs will come into your life that are easy going and perfect in every way, and others will challenge you and cause you to learn new things. That’s what’s great about life with dogs. Good training will enhance your relationship with your dog regardless of where they are on that spectrum, and it won’t come with risks of unintended consequences.