Altered States

                                Debby Boehm

How is it that some dogs carry themselves with more confidence, and perform with more enthusiasm than others?  Is it genetics, socialization or training that enables these dogs to do so well? 


The old argument of Nature vs. Nurture is still hard fought in some circles but it is safe to say, socialization and training can modify, diminish and even mask some temperament faults.   This way dogs with faulty temperaments can function as pets and performance dogs.   However, if this is to be a breeding animal temperament should be strongly considered, since the flaw may be genetic in nature and offspring could exhibit the fault.  Persons acquiring one of these  pups may not have the ability  to overcome the problem.


Dogs are learning all the time.  Each experience they encounter throughout the dogs lifetime, with or without their owner, results in learning.  Good and bad associations are learned.  Good experiences increase acceptance and confidence, bad experiences result in avoidance and suspicion.  The effect of the experience is determined by the dog’s perception, not ours. Each dogs’ reactions and level of reactivity are completely unique. They can experience similar situations yet learn completely different lessons.  Our job is to positively shape the dogs experience.


The effects of early exposure are well documented.  It is important to make a positive initial ‘imprint’.  Imprinting is the exposure to stimuli during puppy hood that will effect a lasting association into  the dogs adult life.  The dogs’ first exposure is enjoyable so the initial imprint is positive.   This sets the stage for future encounters, making a positive foundation to build on.  The dog whose first exposure to the park is one where he plays ball and has a great time will look forward to the next trip to the park.  But the dog that was jumped by another dog on his first park trip may not even want to get in the car. 


Proper socialization is a prepared, active and controlled program.  This makes for a confident happy dog.  When a dog is able to play, respond and focus in a new situation, he gets more confident and proud that he has mastered this new circumstance.  The cycle continues with each positive encounter, increasing confidence and security.   You and the rewards are part of this positive cycle, becoming cues for a good time.  The dog looks forward to more experiences because the imprint is positive


Prepared socialization is rehearsed. The dog is familiar with the rewards and he LOVES them.  He is leash broken and responds to some basic commands.  Whatever you are about to ask of him in this new situation, he has already mastered in the comfort of his home environment. Whether you choose to take him to the park for a fun game of fetch and tug, or to a dog show, his first exposure should be rehearsed so it’s positive. Only ask him to do things he already does well at home and begin far enough away from the intense action that the pup can stay relaxed and focused.   Simple things like  ‘Sit’ for a treat, or ‘Get your  Tuggie’  followed by  a game of tug, are basic commands that the prepared dog knows.   He understands what to do and he knows the response will be rewarded.  This familiarity and predictability reassures the dog  in a new situation.   He feels confident, successful and smart.  The result: a fun initial ‘imprint’. 


Unprepared socialization is unpredictable. Without the benefit of preparatory training or exposure to rewards,  the pup  has no focal point and  the handler is helpless  to shape the dogs initial responses.    If, in a new situation, we remain passive until the pup show signs of distress, we have let him down on several counts.  First, by suddenly paying attention to the dog as we struggle to redirect him, we actually call more attention to the object his concern.  The dogs’ worry can escalate since he sees that now even we are concerned about this scary thing.  Second, since the dog was not familiar with the reward we tried to use to redirect, it didn’t get the dogs attention.   Third, by waiting until the dog was already stressed before we introduced the ‘reward’, the stress and reward pair, so the reward becomes a ‘trigger’ for stress.   It’s much easier to keep the dog focused on the handler and interested in the rewards and the game, than it is to redirect the dog after something has spooked him.  If the pup happened to get into trouble, or get jumped or stepped on, would be difficult to turn the situation around  without any rehearsed commands or familiar rewards.  


Rewards can be used in many ways. The most obvious is as a reward after a correct response. They can also be used to direct the dogs’ attention, to lure him into positions, and as great distractions.  The most common rewards are verbal praise, touch, play and treats. The more the dog enjoys a reward, the more reinforcing  it is.  The dog must like a reward  enough to work to obtain them. Throwing a ball won’t be rewarding for a dog that doesn’t already know and like playing ball.  The dog that doesn’t trust human touch will not find petting  pleasant.  Treats will not be rewarding to the dog that has never taken treats from the hand, or is too stressed to eat. Dogs have some rewards they really like, and others they don’t like as much. Usually, if the dog will solicit the reward, he likes it enough it can be used it in a training situation.  Working to balance the reinforcers  so they are all strong,  builds  a more flexible and adaptable dog  in life and in training.


Introduce rewards in the comfort of the  pups’ home environment.  Initially, your pup may benefit from watching another dog play with a toy, or snarf a treat.  Dog’s react differently with their playmates than they do on their own.   But to prepare your pup for exploring the world,  he should go for the rewards on his own during quality one-on-one time.   Build your relationship with the dog, strengthen his desire for verbal praise, touch, play and treats, and prepare  him for new experiences.


Play is an interactive reward,  it engages the mind and body.   This total engagement  resets the mind and relieves  mental and physical tension of the dog and  handler. Obedience and Conformation require the dog carry himself in certain ways and hold certain positions.  These are difficult tasks especially in the learning phase.   Regardless of how pleasant a training session might be,  a dog that is trying to be right or a dog that can’t seem to be right, are both experiencing some degree of tension.   Play engages and relaxes  the dog and handler.


Play conditions the dog so he is quick and strong.  A strong dog is physically prepared for what ever comes his way.  He is confident and self assured.   Play is a  constructive way to achieve the physical preparedness that is  part of the positive initial imprint.


One way to play with your dog is with toys. They have many uses in training:  as a focal point,  an  interactive tug toy, a retrieve object,  and a reward. Toys can be used to imprint almost all of the higher level exercises, even  before the pup knows a proper dumbbell retrieve or glove pick up.  Toys provide excellent distraction and a unique opportunity to teach a dog control without diminishing attitude.  Toys are fun , and  with  all these uses it easy to see why they are an important training tool.


There are many types of toys,  but the most useful ones are not very expensive, easy to control, and fit easily in your training bag.  A tennis balls on a rope,  tennis ball in a sock,  rope tugs, rope leashes, or  small  to medium (dog safe)  stuffed animals all work well. Tug is interactive, you and the dog play tug with the toy. Sometimes you let him win,  sometimes you get it. There is some controversy over tug,  but  as a controlled game it is a valuable training asset.   Tennis ball or Kong retrieving provides plenty of exercise for the dog, but it takes his attention away from the handler during training sessions.  Retrieve games like ball are not as interactive. The game is about the toy,  the handler is not an involved participant,  just a vehicle that makes the ball the lever that shoots the ball out for a flyball dog.    Ball playing is a good start, but tug involves the  handler to a higher degree in the reward process.


Need to get you pup started playing with toys?  Watch dogs play in a group.   One dog  is crazy for the toy,   the other watches.   The dog with the toy tosses it to himself, shakes it, growls, play bows and charges around. He taunts the dog, parading past,  holding it just out of reach, until the other dogs curiosity takes over. The pup may wait until the toy lands nearby and seize that opportunity to inspect the toy, or he might chase after the other dog, looking to get in the game.  To get your pup to play with toys, you will imitate that taunting dog.  Play with the toy yourself, toss it, chase it, snatch it, throw it against the wall.  If the pup show some interest in it,  move it  AWAY from the dog.  If the pup goes for it, let him have it.  Clap, cheer praise and run around letting him know he really something.  As soon as he drops it  sneak or stalk over and steal it.  Tease him with it again  then put it out of reach until next time.  As his interest grows the pup will carry the toy more and more.  Pet and stroke him while he holds the toy.  Occasionally gently tug,  if he holds on, let him have it.  Usually let him win it, but sometimes gently pry it out as you say “out”, then let him “Get It’ again.  He learns the game (tug), and some control (out)  in the same lesson.   To end the lesson tease him with the toy, don’t let him get it, then put it out of reach.  Leave  the pup wanting more.


‘You’ are the reward you can take in the ring.   Verbal  praise, petting, and play all come from ‘You’.  To build up YOU as a reward find your dogs  best scratching spots.  You know, where the leg starts thumping and the eyes get that far away look.  Let him roll on his back for a good belly rub.  Bombard him with cooing and accolades, tell him  how smart and pretty he is. In addition to building desire for physical praise, raise the enjoyment quotient even more with play.   Get interactive,  rough-house a bit, push his butt, gently smack his feet,  get him to  play bow and solicit.  This way  YOU are playing with your dog,  no toys, no treats.  Baby talk, squeal,  growl,  PRAISE, let yourself go.  Get silly and uninhibited.   If you can’t ‘let down’ around your dog, where can you? Now the pup is  having  fun with YOU.   NOW you  are an effective  interactive  reward  you can use in socialization.. and in the ring!


Treats are easy to use once you find something your dog is crazy for. Experiment with different foods, look for  something soft or moist, that’s easy to carry and easy for you dog to eat.  ‘Rollover,’  string cheese, and hot dogs are some popular choices. Once you have found some treats that he eats readily, make the food reward  more active with games of ‘catch’, or ‘jump up and get it’.   Make up new games,  hide it in your fist so he picks the right one.   Hold him back as he watches you flick a treat across the floor,  then send him to get it.  Talk to your dog, praise him and cheer.  Hold him back, set a treat on the ground, tell him “look”,  as he stares at it send him to “Get It’  Hold  the food near  your face  saying “Watch”, then  ‘Get  It’ as you lower the treat to him.  Food games that involve the handler are more interactive than just dispensing treats.


The better you are at something,  the more you enjoy it.   You feel strong in your ability,  more confident and sure of your self.  As a child,  if you had a knack with numbers,  you may have loved taking math classes.   You may have enjoyed it so much that you chose  to work in a math related field.  Dogs like to do things they are good at  too. They feel strong in their ability to handle new situations. Their confidence and enjoyment build.


If the dog enjoys an exercise, he will  focus on the exercise.  When a dog is worries about how he performs an exercise,   or is fearful of a correction,   he   focuses on the handler or the distraction, rather than the exercise. A dog that is indifferent or  disenchanted about the exercise is not actively engaged in figuring out what’s required. His mind may be  shut down or actively searching for a way out, instead of thinking about  the exercise.  Since his attention is scattered, learning takes longer.  The dog looses confidence and attitude.


A puppy is full of potential.  The goal is to allow the pup to evolve physically and mentally strong. The trick is to train the dog without taking away any of his strength and enthusiasm.