I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways that positive thinking can support a positive dog training program. Getting my students to opt in to my delirious positivity sometimes takes a bit of effort, but I’m encouraged by my recent experiments.
I love working with all of my pupils. Figuring out how to help each individual succeed with their own, specific dog training goals is a daily challenge that I relish. However, I really do see a difference in the learning curves of humans with a “can-do” attitude when compared to those who fret about whether they or their dog will be clever enough or skilled enough to succeed.
I’ve long seen positive thinking as a life-skill critical to success in various endeavors, and lately, I’ve begun to realize just what a difference it can make specifically in our dog training efforts.
Dogs seem to pick up on our moods like lightning rods. Perhaps it’s (at least, in part) their sensitivity to the minutia of body language that cues them in to our emotional state at any given moment. However they figure it out, this is an example of how our behavior can have a profound effect on the way our dogs behave.
Not always, but quite often, I notice that nervous dogs tend to have nervous owners. Sometimes, this seems to be a bit of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Is the owner only anxious around the dog because of the dog’s previous behavior? Or is the dog anxious because the owner tends to exude that sort of energy in the presence of the dog, thereby causing the dog to assume that there must be something worth worrying about?
When I manage to coach these students to show their best effort at faking a happy-jolly routine even if they aren’t feeling completely confident, their dogs visibly relax and begin to see their training as play—jackpot! That’s exactly where we need to be for positive training to have its most dramatic effect.
When dogs think they are doing what we ask them to because it is fun and in their best interest, they tend to give us their best work. Positive training, meet positive attitude. Ka-boom! Positive results!
When students see their dogs having fun and suddenly “getting it,” they lighten up, and begin enjoying their dog training work. What a lovely cycle to witness first-hand!
Visualization exercises, as cheesy and contrived as they may seem at first, can make it so much easier for us to actualize the changes we so desperately seek.
Want to get your dog walking nicely on leash? Set aside fifteen minutes or so of quiet time before your dog’s training session to picture the activity in your mind. Set the stage—choose a location where you’d love to be able to enjoy a relaxing stroll with your best friend. Paint it a picture perfect scene, complete with your favorite weather and surroundings. Imagine yourself happy, relaxed and confident. Imagine your dog calm, relaxed and happy, too.
Notice how you hold your leash, as well as your treats and clicker (assuming you are a clicker trainer like me). Pay attention to exactly what it looks and feels like when your dog is performing precisely as you wish.
Imagine yourself clicking your clicker with perfect timing, letting your dog know the exact moment his behavior was just right, earning him the treat you are now fishing out of your pocket. Visualize yourself paying your dog generously for being such a lovely walking companion. Offering your pet food rewards is usually an easy way to make it clear that you appreciate a certain behavior.
Now, imagine that you repeat the process, waiting for your dog to walk a few more perfect steps before you dole out the next reward. Imagine repeating this process for at least forty repetitions—the minimum number of repetitions it takes most dogs to get the hang of a new behavior.
Visualization exercises like this one are a great method for helping your brain to internalize every little detail necessary to your (and your dog’s) training success. Use the exercise to fully etch the desired sequence into your subconscious mind, and then take the show on the road. Let the memory of the perfect performance you’ve imagined in such detail inform the actual motions you put your body through.
Of course, this doesn’t replace the need to get out there and do the actual work, but it can make that aspect of your training go so much more smoothly. Believe that you can do it, and that you can do it well, for that matter. This can help boost your confidence and enthusiasm as you set about the task at hand, which can help you to help your dog do his absolute best.
Pawsitive thinking, meet pawsitive training. A world of dogly delights is yours for the claiming.