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What is Your Dog’s Baseline?

Dog TrainingYour Dog’s Mindset

When I first got started training dogs in the mid-90’s I was a young guy.  At that time I really had a black and white view of dogs and behavior.  Generally my thought was ‘this behavior is bad, let’s correct it’ and ‘that behavior is good, let’s reward it’.  It’s worth noting that this isn’t an incorrect style of thought seeing as a basic rule of behavior is ‘that which is rewarded is more likely to reoccur and that which is corrected is less likely to occur.’

Now, the reason I thought the above was THE RULE TO DOG TRAINING was because that mindset is what worked for me.  In other words, with my own dogs and dogs that I was training, I could simply correct bad behavior and reward good behavior and I was able to train some really amazing dogs.

Fast forward a couple decades and I’ve worked with thousands of dog owners.  I’ve realized it’s not as simple as correct the bad and praise the good.

I’ve realized it’s all about creating a ‘baseline’ for you and your dog.

Dog Training Baseline?

You see, I realized after some time that I could simply correct bad behavior and praise good behavior because, without realizing it, I had already created a solid baseline for my dogs.  By baseline I mean a state of being where my dog’s minds were generally calm, where they were generally rational, thinking beings.

In that state of mind the dog is highly receptive to new learning.  He’s much less likely to ‘act out’ or ‘disobey’.

But I was creating this baseline without realizing it.  In fact, most good dog trainers and a lot of good dog owners do this as well.  It’s nothing they’re necessarily thinking about doing.  It’s something that just happens.

For example, at our Salt Lake City dog training company we get some really challenging cases of dogs with major aggression problems, heavy anxiety issues, etc.  With very few exceptions we can take that dog and by the next day he or she will have made a complete turn around.

And often this is with very little training, period.  It’s simply a case of us creating an atmosphere, or baseline, where the dog’s mind can finally calm down and be receptive to new learning.

Now, let’s say we take that same dog, turn him around in one day, then give him back to the owner.  He  will almost IMMEDIATELY go back to his negative behaviors.

It was realizations such as this that helped me understand that it is far more than simply correcting the bad and praising the good that gets us to a trained dog.

What does the baseline look like?

Dog Training SpectrumLook at the image here.  It was created by a famous artist, don’t make fun of it’s rudimentary appearance.

This is an image of what I’d call a dog’s mindset spectrum.  On one end of the spectrum you’ve got complete control/obedience/structure.  We don’t want your dog living in that extreme of the spectrum.  That’s a dog who is a robot.  Is always under command.  Doesn’t have any fun.

We also don’t want your dog on the other extreme.  On the other extreme is where fear, anxiety, aggression, destruction, and other bad behaviors live.

Now let’s picture we divide that spectrum in half.  Most dogs I meet for the first time are living in the left half of that spectrum.  In other words, the baseline their owners have created is one where the dog’s mind isn’t right.  He’s prone to anxiety and stress.

If you take a dog living at that baseline and add a simple stressor the dog is so quick to jump to the complete extreme and become aggressive, fearful, highly anxious, etc.

Picture this in your mind.  Picture the dog who is on a walk and simply SEES another dog and flips out.  That dog is living in the left half of the spectrum and one small thing is too much to handle.

Or picture the dog who SEEMS normal in every day life but suddenly gets aggressive or anxious or fearful with a guest in the house.  That dog is living on the left half without the owner realizing it and all it took was one stressor and the dog is having a fit.

I want to reiterate this point.  Many times dog owners don’t even realize this.  More often than not our clients will talk about how their dogs are normally so good, normally so well behaved, normally such good pups….it’s just that when such and such occurs the dogs act poorly.

They think that all we need to do is train the dog during those moments when the dog acts poorly.  They don’t realize there is a baseline created where the dogs live all the time, and that is what needs to change.

In reality, we need to change the entire baseline.  We need to change the dog’s mindset when things AREN’T going wrong, and there are no stressors, such that when the stressor presents itself the dog is already living in the upper half of that spectrum.

Look at the image again.  When the dog is living in the upper half, ideally the upper 1/4, it is literally such a huge mental jump for that dog to turn aggressive or anxious or fearful.  It becomes next to impossible to get that dog out of sorts because his mind is already right.

I always tell dog owners to think about someone they’ve known in their past.  You know, it’s the guy or girl who always seems to be in altercations.  It may be a fist fight, an arguing match, or explosion of temper.  However their anger/stress presents itself it seems as if it’s always right there at the surface ready to explode.

Dog trainingNow ask yourself, is that person just unlucky?  Do they somehow get dealt a bad hand and bad things happen to them?  Or is it that the person shows a pattern of bad decisions dealing with impulse control, perhaps addictions, and a lack of desire to change?  They could try to address the moments when they lose their temper, and they should.  But they’ll get so much more mileage out of creating a life that has better discipline at ALL TIMES, not just the stressful ones.

Would you agree?

How do you create a dog training baseline?

When I’m presenting these ideas to dog owners in person it’s usually at this point that I’m getting a lot of nods and ‘that makes sense’.  If this isn’t making sense write me a comment below with a question.

But, of course, this line of thinking leads to ‘okay, how do we fix our baseline?’

Bad news.  I don’t have a definitive way.  There are a lot of people who have a lot of ‘dog sense’ or are ‘dog savvy’ and they’re going to find that many things they do are naturally calming and naturally establish the structure their dogs crave.

That doesn’t mean that if you aren’t dog savvy that you can’t create this.  It just means that you’ll have to be more conscious about how you’re raising your dog and the interactions you have.  I don’t think there’s an exhaustive list I could create on how to create the right baseline for your dog but the following points can definitely help you.

Note: this isn’t to say that everyone must do all these things.  It also doesn’t mean that if you aren’t doing these things that you aren’t creating the right baseline.  Heck, I’m not doing all of these things with my own dogs.  These aren’t hard and fast rules, simply guidelines and they are in no particular order:

  • Be careful of the affection you give your dog.  Many people are using their dog to fill an emotional void.  I’m not saying that’s incorrect, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not the guy to go around giving emotional advice.  But what I am saying is that many people use affection towards their dog to fill a void in their own life.  They are constantly touching, talking to, treating, thinking about, worrying about, and searching for the affection of their dog.  This is WAY too much responsibility to put on a dog and this will create an enormous amount of stress.Dog Training
  • Make your ‘comings and goings’ neutral.  When you get too excited when you come home and too regretful when you leave this creates an association that your comings and goings are emotionally saturated.  Don’t do this.  That makes it far too exciting when you’re home and far too sorrowful when you’re gone.  We want your dog on an even plane, not in constant emotional upheaval.
  • Many dog owners are going to need to keep their dog off the furniture.  This isn’t the case with everyone, but for dogs living with a lot of stress or on the wrong end of the spectrum this can be a necessity.
  • Don’t let your dogs do crap.  Stop letting them pull on a leash.  Stop letting them bark at everything.  Stop letting them rush through doors.  Stop letting them be destructive.  Just stop it!  Inevitably I get the question with this of ‘well…well…how?’  Nope, sorry, you don’t get to ask that question.  There are literally volumes of material at your disposal to help you with this.  You don’t get to claim ignorance.  My entire dog training website is full of articles and tips, we’ve created an entire line of dog training videos to help you, and you can even email us to see if we know of a dog trainer in your neighborhood not to mention the scads of information from many other great trainers out there.  When you claim that you don’t know how to do something it’s simply because you haven’t taken initiative yet.  Stop that.  Get to work.
  • DO teach your dogs to do good crap.  Why doesn’t your dog hold a ‘down-stay- for a half hour?  Why doesn’t he come when called?  Why doesn’t he ‘listen’ or ‘obey’ or ‘mind’?  Because you haven’t taught him to!  Stop that.  Get to work.
  • Have a calming presence.  Yes, you can play wild.  Yes, you can run around and get goofy with your dog.  But there is a season for everything.  Don’t allow your dog to take the initiative and monopolize your time with play and requests for play.  Instead you initiate it and dictate what play is okay.  When you aren’t doing that, be calm with your dog.

I could go on and on with various other iterations of these ideas and concepts.  I’m hoping, though, that you’ve got the picture now.  I’m hoping that as you’ve read this you’ve thought of things that you can change with you and your dog’s relationship.

Now go and do them.

My Daughter Is Terrified Of The Beach- How It Can Help You With Your Dog

My second oldest child, Cameron (we call her Poki), is terrified of the beach.  Not just scared, but heart palpitation, pee your pants, 5 year old with a  coronary scared.

Yes, that picture of the blond girl is real.  She wasn’t faking that fear.  The waves were coming in and she freaked out.  In fact, she’ll freak out when she sees the waves a full 100 or 200 feet away.

This poses a problem.  As I’ve recently written, we’ve recently moved to Costa Rica.  We live right near the beach.  I can hear the waves from the front yard and see the tree line where the waves begin from our property.

I realized that she is going to have to get over her fear of the ocean, at least on some level, as we go to the beach often.

It then hit me, I’ve helped hundreds of dogs conquer their fear, why not help my daughter using the same principles?

Now, I’m sure I’m about to receive a healthy dose of criticism and parental judgement.  You’re treating your daughter like a dog?!?!  What makes you think you can apply dog training principles to a child?  How cruel!

To those who are going to judge me…feel free.  As parents we get a little nuts from time to time in trying to help and educate our kids.  There isn’t a parent among us who hasn’t tried some stupid stuff to get our kids to see a different perspective, or to stop screaming, or to give us some peace, or to ‘for once in your life put away your clothes!’

I decided I needed to do something drastic if I was going to help her get over this fear so I did exactly what I’ve done with dogs in the past.  Hopefully you’ll be able to learn how you can help your dog with the lesson I learned by working with Poki.  So far, it seems to have worked and I can only imagine things will continue to improve.

I always preach to my dog training clients that fear comes from a ‘chaotic’ state of mind.  In a literal sense, the brain isn’t processing outside data the way it normally does and has allowed itself to briefly ‘atrophy’ into a state of chaos.

Now, if we can assume that the brain (of the dog or of Poki, take your pick) has gone into chaos we must then consider what is the opposite of chaos?  For if we know that chaos is not conducive to growth, what is the polar opposite that could, in theory, allow growth?

The opposite of chaos, in the natural world, is control.

When I’m working with dogs I run into a lot of fears:

  • Fear of going up or coming down stairs
  • Fear of jumping into a vehicle
  • Fear of slippery floors
  • Fear of swimming
  • Fear of loud noises

In nearly every one of these cases I’ve found that we can get quick and lasting results by placing the dog into a fearful setting but requiring control and structure within that setting.  What happens is that the dog is forced to focus on something productive (control, obedience, rules, etc.) rather than something destructive (their fear).

For example, a dog that won’t go up the stairs I simply put on the leash and oblige the dog to follow by my side.  He’ll flip and rant and rave and complain at the top of his lungs but I continue on.  In me pushing the dog beyond his fear threshold the brain has two choices it’s forced into; to adapt or to completely shut off.  Dog and people brains are pretty darn awesome.  I’ve only seen two dogs completely shut down in my entire career and that was a rare case and a story for another day.  Some brains will adapt quickly and others more slowly but all tend to adapt.

In the case of stairs, for example, I don’t think I’ve ever had to run a dog through this drill more than four or five times before he or she was completely fine going up or down stairs.  The same is true for swimming, slippery floors, etc.  It’s rare to have to run a dog through one of these drills more than a handful of times before they can now deal with their fear.

I’ve got a lot of detractors in this philosophy, though.

Not too long ago I was on a message board with other dog trainers from around the country.  The question was posed by a trainer who was having a hard time getting their client’s dog to navigate stairs.  They asked for help in the group.

The answers I saw shocked and repulsed me in regards to how little ‘professional dog trainers’ actually understand about dog behavior and learning.  The answers I saw included:

  • First you must take the dog to the vet to make sure he’s allowed to go up and down stairs.  Really!?!?  We need a vet trip to go up and down stairs?  What’s next, permission from the surgeon general to give your dog a treat?
  • Convoluted solutions involving harness apparatuses to lift the dog up and down the stairs.  This one really got me.  Instead of training the dog and helping the dog, we’ll simply give the owner a back-ache.
  • Complex training ideas involving treats, moving inches at a time, and an admitted 2-3 months of training.  I couldn’t believe this one.  How do trainers stay in business if their solutions for tiny problems require months of work?

When I presented my solution of ‘put the dog on a leash, walk up the stairs, when the dog doesn’t want to walk, keep going,’ I was summarily lambasted by the entire group for such a cruel idea.  It didn’t matter that I could outline why this works in the dog’s brain, how it had worked dozens of times, and how a more cruel fate for the dog was subjecting him to months of stress when this problem could have been solved in the amount of time it took to write down the question.

It was no use, though, the group was insistent that the only way to get a dog over a fear was stockpiles of treats and months of work.  I feel so bad for so many dogs out there.

Back to Poki.  I’ve helped so many dogs quickly get over their fear of swimming and floors and stairs, etc. that I figured this would have to work with my daughter as well.

I picked her up and we started walking.  She screamed a scream so blood curdling that, had the beach been nearly deserted, I’m sure the police would have arrived in due course to check on the murder.

I pushed on, though.  (Cue the disapproving look of judgmental parents)

This is the view from our yard. The far tree line is where the beach is.

We got out in the ocean and she started babbling about sharks, whales, octopuses and other sea creatures that were going to eat her.  She screamed about the waves dragging her out and turning her into a mermaid.  In my mind I knew that getting her into the situation was only half the battle.  I had to get her mind centered on something that can focus her.

In the case of dogs I always use obedience.  I condition the dog to focus on heeling, staying, coming when called, etc.  I’ve found that dogs don’t multitask so if they are focused on the task I’m giving them it doesn’t give them room to focus on their fear.

With Poki I threw her off balance by saying, “Poki, poki, poki, listen real quick.  What is 2+2?”  At first she slowed down a second from the odd question and said she wasn’t in the mood for math.  I persevered, though, and told her how important it was that she teach me what she’d learned about math.

As I started peppering her with math questions and other questions on topics she’s been studying I could feel her heart beat calm down, her breathing slow to normal, and her fear melt away.  It didn’t entirely melt away but I made sure that we left the water on a calm note (also an important dog training principle) and she was much calmer when we left.

The result.  Not 10 minutes later she asked to go into the water.  This time she cheerfully went in without being carried and voluntarily stood in thigh deep water while waves came in.  There was still hesitation and after a bit she decided she’d had enough but just two days after that she was asking if we could go down to the beach.

She’s not completely over her fear and we’re not signing her up for surf lessons yet.  But by obliging her mind to deal with a fear and then re-focusing the mind she made quick and vast improvements.

You can do the same thing with your dog.  Don’t take my advice on child-rearing, though, you’re on your own with that one.

Happy training.

How To Socialize A Dog

When it comes to socializing your dog there are three main components. Two of them are often done correctly. One of them is nearly always messed up. That one part that gets messed up is often the reason behind dog aggression, anxiety issues, fear, and more.



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