Empower Your Dog
Vivian Levén, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA

The transition from old fashioned dog training to positive dog training was truly a paradigm shift. So where are we heading in the future? It is possible we are heading for another paradigm shift?

A lot of interest and focus is on how to how to empower your dog. It is the quest that all living beings have to be free to make their own choices to ensure thriving and not only surviving.  Well-known psychologist and animal trainer Dr. Susan Friedman says: "The power to control one's own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice."

In the old days the dog training tended to focus on absolute control. The dog was supposed to always listen, obey and "be good" no matter what. If they were not, this was an expression of failure on the part of the owner. We understand today that dogs too have their good and bad days and their own desires and vicissitudes. Mutual respect is important in any relationship, whether with an animal or other human being.

So how does this work in practical terms?
We all perform behavior to gain reinforcing outcomes. When we have more options we also have a greater chance of making choices that are really good for us. This builds confidence, sense of safety and control and increases life quality. We can only refer back to our own lives. Do you prefer to be around people who encourages you to find solutions or people who try to make all the decisions for you? And around which group of people will you reach your best potential? In our training we always try to give the animal a choice. In regular obedience training we stack the odds so that doing what we want makes the right choice for the animal too. We encourage giving the dogs treat puzzles, Kongs and other things to allow them to engage on their own terms and offer enrichment. This is how we work with anxious and fearful dogs

With dogs who have fear and anxiety issues we go even further. The approach consists of two main steps.

1). Operant oriented learning: We provide them with lots of problem-solving activities to really encourage decision-making abilities as much as we can. It is the operant learning approach where the behavior/consequence connection is encouraged. It can be anything from teaching tricks, various Nosework activities (note: we have several levels of Nosework classes), setting up games where thinking and decision-making is key to receiving the reward.

2). Classical oriented learning: We also are aware of giving choices when it comes to changing the animal's emotional response using classical conditioning.

Example 1: If an animal is uncomfortable with us touching the feet we may start touching the side and give treats every time the touch happens. We gradually move our hand further and further down on the leg. Should the dog, at any time, move the leg or body away from us we move back to an easier step, the dog is always choosing and communicating what she is okay with or not.

Example 2: The same goes with interaction with strangers. The dog should always have a choice to move away, and we never force the dog to be in proximity of a stranger to the point where there is a reaction and the animal goes over threshold. The animal always has the power to say "yes" or "no." When the dog realizes this and can trust you to be their advocate in this they become much more comfortable and confident in situations that may be a bit scary.

In everyday life with our dogs there are many things we can do to offer our dogs choices. We can let them choose sometimes which way to go on the walk, when and where to sniff, if they want the filled Kong or a bone, if they want to sleep in their bed or the crate, if they want to play with the ball or the squeaky.

If you get into the habit of asking you will see your dog will tell you. It will make for an even more awesome relationship.