Speech! (On Training)

Turtle kept stealing toys off the table.

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to give a talk about dog training at a wonderful dog-centric lakeside barbecue hosted by Brooklyn Bark

I was joined by pet photographer James Morrissey who gave a talk on how to take good pics of your pup, and an NYPD canine officer Matt Notaro showing off his incredible bloodhound Seneca and explaining how she “trails” criminals and missing persons.
Officer Matt Notaro and Seneca 

Here’s the (rough) transcript of the talk I gave, titled “Obedience Training And Behavior Therapy”:

I am certified as a Pet Dog Trainer, yet I also interned with and received a certification from a Canine Behavior Therapist. Although I teach obedience classes, most of my private sessions involve behavior therapy. These two disciplines aren’t often distinguished, yet a lot of the time when dog owners set out looking for obedience trainers what they really need is behavior therapy. So I want to say a few words that can help dog owners put their money and energy where it will serve them best.

Obedience training means teaching your dog to understand commands, in the form of words, phrases, and sign language. For instance: “stay”, “come”, “drop it”, “sit”, “down”, and “heel”. The main purposes of obedience training are fitting in with our world, safety, and convenience. “Heel”, for instance, is extremely helpful in the city, since we need our dogs to walk politely past many distractions on narrow and crowded sidewalks. “Drop it” can save your dog’s life if he picks up a chicken bone; “stay” can save his life if he slips out of his collar and runs toward a busy street. Likewise with “sit” “come”, and many other obedience commands. If our dogs lived “in the wild”, or on acres and acres of open farmland, there might not be as much need for obedience. But especially for dogs in urban areas, obedience is both helpful and necessary.   

Behavior therapy, in contrast, means rehabilitating your dog’s neuroses or psychological and emotional imbalances. The most common neuroses I see, especially with shelter dogs, are separation anxiety (your dog barks, whines, digs, or chews when you leave him home alone – something most city dwellers often need to to), hyperactivity (pent-up energy often exacerbated by being confined in an apartment), phobias (many dogs are afraid of thunder; many city dogs are also frightened of skateboards, loud children, and buses), and aggression (whether “leash-aggression” while passing other dogs on thin sidewalks, or offleash at a dog park).

The main purpose of behavior therapy is to have a calm, peaceful, happy dog. Neuroses can be caused by being in the shelter system, having to be re-homed, stresses associated with city living, traumatic experiences as a puppy, lack of proper socialization, and so on. Behavior therapy rehabilitates Fido, bringing out the happy inner pooch we all know and love. 

Because of the differences between obedience training and behavior therapy, it is possible and in fact very common to have one without the other. Many of the dogs I see are able to “sit”, “give paw”, “roll over”, and so on – but are hyperactive, anxious, or even aggressive. This is incredibly common, to see dogs who have earned an “A” in obedience class, yet have many psychological and emotional neuroses that result in annoying and even dangerous behavior problems. On the flip side, our own Calm Energy Greyhounds are excellent examples of well-balanced, non-neurotic dogs who are downright disobedient. (I know I shouldn’t admit it but it’s true!) Their psychological balance required lots of behavior therapy in the first year after we adopted them: the male was scared of all humans and wouldn’t approach them; he had intense prey-drive that he dangerously redirected toward small dogs and puppies; and the female was skittish and terrified of all loud noises including jackhammers, trucks, and loud music. We worked with them extensively and consistently, and now they love all dogs, all humans, and are unafraid of all city distractions, having learned to trust us and be normal, happy dogs. Yet we’ve let their obedience training slide: they only sometimes “come” when called; and “drop it” is essentially hopeless once a chicken-bone actually touches their lips!

Despite the independence of obedience training and behavior therapy, I want to end by mentioning some ways that I use obedience training to help in particular cases of behavior therapy.  

  1. For cases of separation anxiety, I often prescribe as part of a therapeutic solution honing the obedience commands “go to your bed” and “lie down”. Using these commands before you leave lets your dog know (a) that you intend to be gone (so he doesn’t have to wonder if you’ve been lost, need to be found, or you’ve forgotten about him), and (b) that you want him to relax and enjoy until you return (he has an “assignment”).  
  2. For hyperactivity: “Sit”, “lie down”, and “flat” (= “all the way over”; = lying on his side, belly exposed) are helpful because the more relaxed the physical body position, the more relaxed the mind is forced to be.  
  3. For phobias: “Heel” is helpful because dogs are more comfortable (a) moving and (b) following the lead of someone they trust to protect them. “Heel”ing your dog in the presence of fear triggers can help him be calm, which then allows him to experience those triggers as non-threatening and begin to see them in a new light. “Flat”, again, (or “all the way over”) is helpful because it is a vulnerable position that proves to Fido that he is in no danger.
  4. For aggression: “Heel” again, since movement and following are comforting; and “flat” again, since being low to the ground with an exposed belly is incompatible with dominant behavior (and promotes being sniffed, a submissive and bonding act).

You might notice I really like the command “flat”. It helps an overexcited or hyperactive dog be calm, a fearful or anxious dog be vulnerable and trust, and a dominant or aggressive dog be submissive and peaceful. Try it!

    There’s the text I spoke from; I hope it is somewhat comprehensible in print. I finished the talk by taking questions from the audience … so, any questions?

    Published On: May 24th, 2011Categories: Yelp


    1. celseaboling June 5 at 10:29 PM

      Training a puppy is like training a child indeed. It’s just that a puppy when it is grown will not nag you like a person does. I miss my Sport, I haven’t had a dog in 2 years, I guess it’s time to get one.

    2. Melanie June 25 at 7:05 AM

      Indeed Great write

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