(Updated 27/7/01)

Complete commitment - is your's total or otherwise?
How committed are we to our dogs and the effect they have on our lives?

by John Cree

I would like to think that the answer to the first part of this question from any reader of OUR DOGS will generally be that they are fully committed to the welfare of their dogs and all aspects of their involvement in canine activities.

Preparing for dog shows or training them for any of the various competitive activities is a major commitment taking up much time, effort and financial input. There are the rewards of winning or gaining qualifications, but most of all there is the reward of involvement - the sheer pleasure of doing something constructive with their dogs and the company of like-minded people.

There are of course people who find their commitment centred round their own pleasure at the expense of the dog, people who should be playing golf instead of their involvement in canine activities. After all, a bag of golf clubs can be put into the cupboard and ignored until the next game. Perhaps I am not being fair to golfers, it was a game I used to enjoy before involvement in dog activities took over my life.

The commitment I would like to bring to the fore at this time is the personal commitment and involvement to achieve an acceptable behaviour level or a specific standard in training for domestic, competitive or professional purposes.

Over the years I have studied the commitment of owners when training or attending to elementary problems with their dogs. I shall use the expression of ‘owners’ as a universal approach to identifying handlers and trainers (not instructors). Most of these are owners of the dogs and the expression of ‘handlers’ and ‘trainers’ gives the impression that we are principally dealing with the competitive or professional field of expertise. It is important pet dog owners appreciate that they are more numerous than the ‘others’ and can benefit from the type of assistance that is most appropriate to their particular requirements.

Studying people for the purpose of improving methods and handling techniques is just as important as studying their dogs. It is the owner who creates the end product - an obedient dog or a disobedient one, a worthy competitor or an ‘also ran’, an effective professional or a liability. When working to create a canine reaction commitment is important. We are expecting concentrated commitment from the dog at that particular time and he deserves the same from the person creating that reaction.

Substitute

Unfortunately concentrated, or I prefer to call it total commitment from the owner is not always forthcoming during training and today’s tendency to use titbits, toys or some other gadget all too often has become a substitute for total commitment. I am not condemning the use of such training aids, I make use of them myself, but observation has taught me that far too many instructors and behaviourists are over dependent on the use of these aids when assisting or directing a dog owner the conditioning techniques.

As training a dog to perform a task or eradicating an undesirable action is in both cases a form of conditioning for the desired response it is easier to be inclusive of both situations by describing a procedure as one of conditioning a dog’s action or reaction.

Over the years, which cover my life with dogs, I have watched the form of owner commitment change. My own activities have changed. During the 1950s when I entered the scene of dog training total commitment was much more evident than it is today, although there were always quite a number of owners who seemed to be more interested in the social side of dog training than the practical application of an instructor’s teachings. Unfortunately that total commitment in the earlier years created a harsher and, at the time, a more brutal approach from a significant section of the training fraternity.

Although I was brought up in the branch of a club where brutality was not an option there were many clubs where the desire for success would bring out the worst, and not the best, in a proportion of owners. I recall one situation where an instructor took a German Shepherd from his owner to demonstrate how she should be applying TOTAL commitment with her dog. After a few minutes of total compulsion the dog managed to break free, ran out of the hall and was lost for three months before he found his way home; with shotgun pellets in his thick coat.

My first German Shepherd worked well in both Working Trials and Obedience. He became a W.T. Champion but we were not quite committed enough to win an Obedience ‘ticket’. I was advised by a particular section of competitors to put him in a kennel when he was not being exercised or trained and this exclusion from my company for long periods would result in greater commitment from him. I believe this technique is still used by some today; but I saw no sense in having a canine companion in isolation for the sake of success in a field of competition.

The change to the conditions that prevail today is now so dramatic that titbits, toys and gadgets have taken the desired personal commitment out of conditioning for a cooperative canine response. The problem is that when inappropriate use of training aids is applied to generate canine attention this does not prepare the dog, or the owner, for situations when these aids are not at hand. There are so many occasions in real life when a training aid is not at hand and immediate action is a necessity. The aid may be in a pocket or a belly bag and by the time the aid is applied it is too late. There are also many situations when a dog is distracted to the degree that these training aids are of no practical value.

I have written many times about timing and it would do no harm to review the principles again. The question is ‘What is the correct timing?’ There is, in fact, a short space of time when action is of any value; running from the ideal to the latest effective moment. This period of time is very short, and in most cases two or three seconds can be considered too long to be effective. Timing can best be described as: -
(a) The time lapse starts when the dog is thinking of acting in a particular manner. This is the ideal and most effective time to act.
(b) The period finishes as the dog is completing the particular action. This is the very latest that an owner has to affect a dog’s actions.

The ideal through to latest effective moment is the OWNER RESPONSE TIME

Observant

The effectiveness of human reaction can therefore be said to be in relation to the timing. The most effective reaction to an owner’s intervention would take place during the canine thinking period. If an owner is sufficiently observant, he can realise when his dog is thinking of acting in a particular manner. In fact, past experience should warn an owner of these occasions. This applies to unwanted actions an owner wishes to eradicate and to desirable actions an owner wishes to consolidate. Anticipation is the name of the game and the owner’s ability to respond within the appropriate response time will make the difference between success and failure.

For example - while out for a walk with a dog the sight of another dog relatively close may cause an aggressive reaction. If the owner sees the other dog first, he can observe his dog’s initial reaction to the other dog’s presence. This knowledge can give an owner the opportunity to take preventive action and divert his dog’s attention before his own dog has decided to show the unpleasant side of his nature. Strong and urgent deflecting action on the owner’s part while the dog is thinking would be most appropriate. If an owner waits until his own dog has shown the unpleasant side of his nature he may or may not be able to stop his dog but just as important he is less likely to teach the dog self control. Every action an owner takes should, if possible, be carried out in a manner that will help to prevent a recurrence of his dog’s unwanted response.

It is understandable why so many owners do not appreciate the importance of timing when I see that so many instructors and behaviourists failing to bring the point home. I have watched so many T.V. programmes involving behaviourists when they have applied Discs, Clickers and the like to affect a dog’s reaction, and they can apply them with perfect timing, but I have yet to hear them explain to the dog owner the importance of this timing. It has been the same with training classes where titbits are utilized as an inducement. All too often there is little or no importance conveyed to the owners of timing - of the effect of good timing and the ineffectiveness of bad timing.

To make matters worse the titbits, toys and attention generating gadgets are used instead of, or without sufficient involvement of the owner. As previously described, all too often, there is insufficient personal commitment to have the owner effective when these inducements are not immediately available.
That philosophy will be discussed in the next article titled - TITBITS, TOYS AND GADGETS.

 


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