The owner was given clear instructions to say their goodbyes outside the gate before calling me outside. The handover was quick and effortless to ensure as painless as possible transition into our home. Usually the dogs cope far better than the owners do at this point, so my request is more for the owners than the dogs, but I rarely tell the owners that.
My clients apprehensively leave, hoping the dog will do well.
The dog is now left to cope with his/her new environment without the assistance of their pack.
As I watch and observe the dog, I can already see glimpses of a story that has become the dog’s narrative usually told by others that the dog now believes to be true. My job is to change the dog’s narrative to a more positive one that not only the owners believe, but more importantly the dog starts to also.
Questions….so many questions.
How does this dog cope with change?
How does this dog cope with stress/environmental pressure?
How does this dog cope with the anxiety?
These are just some of the questions I keep in my mind as I watch and quietly observe the dog during our brief introduction.
My purpose during the dog’s entire time with me is to find the dog’s baseline, their status quo, and their norm. I remind myself I cannot assess a baseline successfully in the first couple of days, as usually a new environment will unfairly impact my assessment of the dog’s status quo. However, it still matters. It still contributes to the overall picture like a footnote in their book I’m reading. Only after I’ve read their entire story by way of observation, do I then aim to edit, and if needed, endeavour to rewrite whole chapters.
The first couple of days, all I do is observe……….
I observe the dog’s attitude toward play and food, I observe the dog’s body language, I observe the dog’s interactions with people and dogs (if any), I observe the dog’s reactions to normal everyday occurrences, I observe all behaviour and responses to stimuli, I observe EVERYTHING…….
At the beginning, I can’t express more emphatically…….. less is more! So aim to utilize this time to just watch.
Don’t worry about training the dog yet. Just be present and watch.
Observation is severely underrated and under-utilised. Most behaviourists are usually too focused on changing behaviour straight out the gates, without giving thought to just simply observing first.
For the board and train dog, as time goes beyond the acclimation period (the first 1-3 days), observation is still unwavering. It is constant and our fixed picture. Gradually, we slowly start to insert pockets of training pertinent to what we deem necessary and individual to that dog. Our training picture is not constant, it is variable with a nice ebb and flow that responds and caters to our observations given via a constant feedback loop. As I observe new changes in the dog whether positive or negative, I then alter my training plan to suit.
It’s important as dog owners and trainers we keep a positive picture of where we want the dog to be and we start to slowly work toward changing the dog’s baseline by filling the holes and gaps through training. The dog’s narrative starts to change as we move toward that new positive picture.
As a great trainer recently said….’positive thinking! no can’t, just do’. A simple but honest approach to dog training.
In this calamitous fast paced world, it’s no wonder we have forgotten how to be still with our dogs. The power of observation is a skill learned akin to meditation. At first you find it difficult to quiet your monkey mind and just be present. But as time goes on, just like all new skills your muscle memory develops and you become an accomplished ‘observer’ of the dog.
Learn the skill of observation. Go spend time with your dogs outside and just watch them. Truly watch them. Don’t presume to know what they will do or how they will act. Observe and be still.
This skill of observation will serve you well as not only a great dog owner/trainer but also a friend and true advocate for the dog.
Pic 1 supplied by Jaice Jackson: Dog's name Tate.
Pic 2 supplied by Tracey Bruhn: Dogs names, Puck and Nugget.
Pic 3 supplied by Lilly Cantle: Dog's name Becky.
Pic 4 supplied by Birdy O'Sheedy: Dog's name Luna.