The Dance of Dog Training

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The other day Miller trotted around a corner and encountered one of his people at a doorway. He growled a little. In Miller’s case, he didn’t do this to be “dominant” as some people might suggest (will that idea never die?), but because he was expressing discomfort with the situation. A growl was his way of saying “Too close.”

As I’ve written before, Miller needs space. We train* him to deal with it, using different cues and behaviours depending on the scenario. In this case, his human moved a step back, asked Miller to hand target, and he did. This moved him out of the compressed space in the process. Human and dog continued on their ways and all was well.

Space: Miller’s frontier. At every opportunity, we build Miller’s confidence and trust.

If Miller had his choice, he’d probably prefer living in an open plan house- lots of room to run and squeaky toys to his heart’s content. I might too, but hard to say. I like quiet nooks and corners.

Dogs don’t get to choose their families or where they live. You choose the dog, take it home, and make things work to your liking. The dog must figure out what that looks like, and ideally, the humans communicate that through training. Miller might not have had a choice on his family, or where he lives, but he does get some say about how he lives with us. When he looks alarmed, or growls, we figure out what’s going on and train accordingly.

If we are going to be doing a fair bit of bustling around in the kitchen while cooking or cleaning up, we send Miller to his mat. Sure, he wants to be underfoot scouting and nibbling anything he finds, but it doesn’t make for good relations. He’s been shoved accidentally more than once, and he takes great offense when it happens. The easier and smoother way is to keep him on the sidelines. He can still see what is going on and can observe where to snuffle for things we might have dropped once he’s released.

Same with other rooms. Hustle and bustle? Settle the beast. If we’re in the living room and going back and forth to get snacks or books, he’s directed to his crate. We have him in his crate with the door open most nights to reinforce it’s his place to go where no one will bother him. He settles in to sleep readily.

When we first introduced all four of these behaviours (go to your mat, stay on your mat; go to your crate; stay in your crate), we reinforced him every time he went and stayed, but now we can reinforce intermittently. It’s part of teaching him what to do and making it a predictable routine. When twists are added to the plot, like guests, he has a baseline that his crate is a safe and quiet space.

Like most dogs, Miller has specific training needs that have changed over time as he and we have built connection and the foundation of routines. It’s an ongoing dance of assessing needs, teaching and practice. We dance it with joy, two-way communication, and the solidity of positive reinforcement training.

Got a dog who needs space like Miller? Dogs in Need of Space is a great resource. Want to learn about dog body language and communication? Check out I Speak Dog, a new site to help people and dogs communicate better.


*Note: I’m not a certified dog trainer, just passionate about the best outcomes for dogs. If your dog needs support beyond your own skill level, please choose a certified trainer.


Image: After Daylight Savings kicked in, Miller and I searched for lost hour to no avail. 

2 thoughts on “The Dance of Dog Training

  • April 11, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    I can sympathize with Miller and wish that in the hustle and bustle I had a mat or crate to go to! He is an amazing creature and has taught me more than I previously knew about the wariness and reactivity of our animal family.

    • April 15, 2017 at 6:44 am

      He’s taught us both, hasn’t he? I’m grateful for it, as it’s made me more aware of all the dogs I meet. He is a curious soul, and supporting him to be most comfortable is a dance for sure.


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