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"Typing" Your Dog
Admit it: You've met people and come to an instant judgment about who they are based on nothing but looks. But did you know most of us do that with dogs, too? Prejudice usually follows stereotypes about breeds.
While most training programs go along with this thinking, in my method breed is not considered. I have met pit bulls who expressed nothing like the "typical" attack dog temperament and "sweet" little toy dogs who would have you jumping on furniture to save yourself. All dogs evolved from a common ancestor, which does explain a few universal characteristics, such as the love of enclosed spaces (a carryover from cave-dwelling days). But domestication, as well as the introduction of different breeds, are relatively recent developments. It therefore makes perfect sense that breed should be a fairly weak indicator of individual nature. In fact, even less than with people, a dog's nature has little to do with what he looks like. With one exception: Size does matter.
In twenty years of training dogs, I have never met two that were exactly alike. As a matter of fact, I've never even met two that were almost alike. Each dog has its own unique personality. Conventional dog training prescribes a set way for teaching every new behavior. To teach a sit, for example, tradition has it you should push down on the rump saying (often repeating), "Sit!" But what if you have a dog who becomes submissive when any physical force is used to make him sit? Or, what if your dog aggressively rebels against your touching his rear end? What if you have a dog who wouldn't sit if you sat on him? These are scenarios that could quickly bring you to a dead end in conventional training. They can also generate just the sort of questions that can help you unlock your dog's personality and achieve success with my method. Now, before we proceed, a caveat: As with people, there are dogs that are simply pathological. If you have a dog whose timidity or aggression is extreme (he's not just a little put out from a thump on the rump), you should immediately seek the experience of a reputable trainer or behaviorist. If, however, you have a regular dog with regular problems who just needs to learn some manners (or unlearn some, as the case may be), then you've come to the right place. I'll ask the questions, you provide the answers, and together we'll find out what type of dog you really have: Just who is living in that furry little head?
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE WHO YOUR DOG IS?
(And no, you can't skip this section)
Mind if I ask you some personal questions? Do you care whether people know who you are? Is it important that the people in your life understand what you enjoy? Who hasn't received a present from someone dear, and groaned, "This is so not me!"? Even the least-self-centered person suffers when misunderstood.
Does your work environment affect your productivity? Maybe you've worked somewhere that is laid-back and mellow, when what you really needed to flourish was a high-energy, fast-paced setting. Understanding your personality type, preferences, and stimuli is vital to promoting both your contentment and your efficiency. The same goes for your dog.
What makes a dog tick varies unpredictably from individual to individual. Ignoring this fact is a surefire recipe for exasperation in training. Imagine that your dog is mainly toy motivated and you've been trying to train him by using pieces of steak as rewards. Steak is great-dogs love steak, don't they? Sure, except when they don't. What matters is this: Does your dog love the reward enough to "roll over" for it? Using the steak reward without success, you may come to a totally faulty conclusion, for instance: "That dog is so lazy, he won't even sit when I offer him STEAK!" I would guess there are thousands of dogs that have "flunked" obedience school on account of being misunderstood by their owners or trainers: for example, the emotionally sensitive dog whose owner insists on giving loud and angry-sounding commands or the low-work ethic dog whose thirty-minute training sessions would have been more effective had they been broken into three ten-minute sessions throughout the day. Such owners are convinced they are making an offer no dog could refuse. But the results speak for themselves. Assuming you can accept the basic premise that most training problems don't arise from a mental or moral deficiency, you can see where the answer to the canine-learning riddle lies. Discovering your dog's prime motivation is one of several easy diagnostic steps on the path to a successful training experience.
I use five determinants to figure out a dog's personality type.
1. Prime Motivation: Highly individual and unpredict-able, but vital to keeping him interested in learning. I find nearly all dogs fall into one of four groups:
• Food Motivated: Pretty self-explanatory and the one every human thinks of first.
• Toy Motivated: "I'll do anything you want for a rubber bone."
• Physical-Play Motivated: "Frolicking with you, running in circles, getting petted, etc.-that's my idea of living." Doesn't need a toy, just you.
• None: Responds to no stimulus yet. I say "yet" because I believe all healthy dogs have at least a latent motivation. Sometimes it's up to you to bring it out. In the sections that follow I'll give you ideas not only on how to boost the drives your dog does exhibit, but also how to uncover ones when none appear to exist. Trust me, it's in there!
2. Energy Level: The gauge for how long to make your training sessions. A subjective call to some degree, but I offer guidance to help you judge the level accurately.
3. Work Ethic: Some are decadent. Some are Calvinists. The greater the work ethic, the less the need for cheering him on and rewarding him. A dog with a naturally low work ethic will need much more of a "carrot," especially in the early stages.
4. Emotional Sensitivity: If you don't acknowledge it, you'll never get anywhere: Dogs have feelings, too. The highly sensitive dog needs to feel successful and, in case of an error, requires reassurance almost to the point of praise for effort alone. He must also be brought along more slowly, especially when it comes time to start testing his skills with distractions. Dogs, as well as people, who are less high-strung can naturally handle a lot more in the way of training stress.
5. Physical Sensitivity: When you attempt any correction, this will register right away. Some dogs respond to the slightest tug; others engage in tug-of-war. Fortunately, most dogs fall somewhere in the middle.
There is no set formula for typing your dog. And traits don't always link in ways you might expect. For example, not all emotionally sensitive dogs are physically sensitive, too. One of my favorite trainees was very tenderhearted but had the physical sensitivity of a bull elephant. He was a wheaten terrier, and terriers are known to be tenacious, but the latter fact could hardly explain this dog's blend of fragile emotions and game physicality. When the kids in his household were running around hooting and hollering, as adolescent boys will do, Beau would run off and cower in his crate. Emotionally, he was a softie. And yet, when said softie would run full tilt into the sliding glass door, fall out of the kids' tree fort (don't ask), or jump out of a parked car's open window (that was the last straw-next stop: my class), he wouldn't even blink. Moral of the story: Emotionally sensitive dogs can be physically tough. And vice versa.
PRIME MOTIVATIONS: EATING AND PLAYING, AND PHYSICAL CONTACT
Let's start with what turns your dog on. Try the following experiments, and record your findings.
Feed Me, Seymour!
(With apologies to the cast and crew of Little Shop of Horrors)
Before feeding my dog dinner, I offer him a dog biscuit. He
a.looks at me as if to say, "You're kidding! James, fetch me my squeaky toy!";
b.always eats it politely;
c.scarfs it along with my pinkie;
d.goes back to sleep on the couch.
Repeat the experiment using a piece of hot dog or cheese (string cheese works best).
Feed dinner as usual.
Now, repeat the two experiments after dinner, again recording the results.
If you got all a's and d's, your dog is probably not very food motivated.
If you had an a or d with the biscuit but then a b or c when you switched to the hot dog or cheese, your dog is food motivated but only when given the "right" food.
If you got straight b's and c's, then your dog is obviously food motivated. He may also exhibit behavioral problems that include wolfing down or even audaciously stealing any food in sight, whether his or your own.
One Dog's Toy Is Another Dog's . . .
Is your dog a player? Does he make a game of fetch or tug, or does he prefer to sleep? Let's see if your dog requires a toy to have a good time. Try the following, and note your dog's reactions.
I throw a ball over my dog's head after he hasn't seen me for an hour or more. He
a.waits for me to fetch it;
b.runs and gets it but never comes back;
d.walks away as if he thinks I'm insane;
e.fetches one to five times before losing interest;
f.fetches five to fifteen times before losing interest;
g.fetches no matter how many times I throw it (as a matter of fact it's dark, and he's still out there).
Now repeat the exercise using a tug toy or some other plaything, and record the results.
B's, e's, f's, and g's all have a play drive, either for retrieving or tugging.
B's have a play drive; they just don't need you (after you've thrown the ball!) to have a good time. Toy-motivated dogs will play with a toy by themselves. They throw it, they chew it, they pounce on it. A playmate is optional.
We can definitely fix that.
E's have a low to average play drive.
F's have an average to high play drive; and g's are compulsive players. I own one of the latter. It's wonderful because you can train them almost any time of the day or night; they are always ready for action. The downside is that they can be annoying because they constantly want-need, actually!-to be doing something. But have no fear: You can learn to harness that unusual drive in training and to redirect whatever's left toward interactive toys.
A Little to the Left
Some dogs' idea of a reward is physical contact. They don't require toys, elaborate games, or even treats. If you have one of these, you don't even need a quiz. Your dog is leaning against you at this very moment. Maybe you're even holding the book with one hand while giving your dog a tummy rub with the other. In this case, you are the dog's primary reward. And hey, that's good news, because unlike food- and toy-driven dogs, you'll always have your dog's motivation handy.
Dogs who are into the touchy-feely thing can be grouped into two main categories:
You Say Tomato . . .
First there are the snuggle-bunnies. They like scratches behind the ears, tummy rubs, and scritches at the base of their tails. Add verbal praise and you have doggie nirvana. This type of dog usually makes not-so-subtle suggestions that you should pet him. Now. And don't stop. Ever. Those suggestions range from leaning against you and sighing to flipping your hand up with his nose to the ever-popular hit-your-leg-with-his-paw technique. Except for flipping your hand with his nose when you are holding your morning bowl-sized cup of joe, these techniques are cute and hard to resist.
The potential downside to this type of dog is that he may be clingy; the type of dog who tries to follow you into the bathroom, and then greets you twelve seconds later like a long-lost friend. When you teach the Wait command you may find he doesn't love the idea of you being away from him. Don't worry-you'll teach him that if he can contain himself for mere minutes you'll return lavishing scratches.
I Say Tom-AH-to . . .
Then there are the roughhousers. Their tastes tend more toward the Greco-Roman wrestling style of physical contact: wrestling, pushing, and pouncing, the sort of things adolescent boys do in the middle of your living room inches from the cabinet containing your prized Capodimonte figurine collection.
While you may occasionally enjoy furnishing this type of reward, the inherent dangers are many. For those reasons, there needs to be an "on" switch, and, it goes without saying, an "off" switch.
My Border collie Quick is a roughhousing type of dog, and I have the bruises to prove it. When he was a puppy I would allow him (on a leash) to play rough with me, but when I wanted him to stop I would say "enough." If he stopped, he would get a treat. If he continued, he would get a tug on the collar. The command is now so powerful that if he's playing with my children and I notice he's getting too wild I can say "enough" from the next room and he'll chill. When he does a great job in training, I can reward him by taking him for a walk on the wild side, while still sparing myself a tiger-sized hematoma. "On" switches are nice, "off" switches are vital.
If your dog falls into the majority of canines, you have by now identified some stimuli that turn him on (and maybe off!). If he has more than one motivator, lucky you! You get to pick which one to use in training. Or you can use one type to teach one command and a second to teach the next. My personal preference is to train with food, because I can always hide a piece of food in my hand. A tennis ball or squeaky toy is a little tougher to disguise, unless you're Paul Bunyan.
If your dog shows no motivation with food, toys, or play, we'll need to dig a little deeper.