The Number One Rule.
I have a basic, core principle that I teach on the very first day I meet with a new client or begin a new class. It is the fundamental principle behind establishing yourself as a confident and consistent leader to your dog. It is called “The Number One Rule”. No one ever remembers the Number One Rule right away, but eventually they all do. More on that later.
I travel all over Vermont working with many different kinds of people and their dogs. I’ve gotten pretty good at sizing up a household the minute I walk in the door. I had a call from some prospective clients recently, who were essentially sending up an S.O.S. signal. They were completely overwhelmed by their dogs and how soon can you get here?
Upon my first visit, I was greeted at the door by three Golden Retrievers who were so excited to see me that they knocked over the umbrella stand while taking turns bouncing off my chest, then dashed out the front door, one jumped in the fish pond, the others made a pass around the driveway through mud and rain and then all three ran back into the house leaving a trail of muddy paw prints behind them.
All the while, the bewildered owners were hollering and calling and trying desperately to gain control of the situation. When things settled down I asked them a simple question, “Who’s in charge?” They made a weak attempt to explain that things weren’t always like this but they soon surrendered to the fact that, “yes, the dogs were in charge”.
Dogs behaving badly are generally just dogs behaving perfectly normally, if you are a dog. It is up to us to teach dogs what is acceptable behavior around humans and what is not. Dogs feel most comfortable when they have a confident leader, someone who they trust to make good choices for them. If you don’t take the lead, your dog will.
Back to the Number One Rule. This is something you can do right away, today, in the next five minutes, to begin to change your dog’s behavior. The Number One Rule is to ask your dog for a small bit of work before giving them access to anything that he or she wants.
What does your dog want? What does your dog find enjoyable? Make a list of all those things. The list might include going for a walk, going in the car, getting out of the car, being released to play with a dog friend, access to a favorite toy, a treat and of course…… dinner. I think you will find there are lot of things that your dog wants.
If your dog knows how to sit on cue, ask for a sit, then let your dog out the door! Maybe your dog lies down on a cue, ask him to lie down then “let’s go in the car!” Maybe your dog knows a “high-five” or a “paw-shake” or a “nose touch” to your hand. After the paw shake, release your dog to greet a visitor. Maybe your dog has a trick or two. Ask for some simple behavior and then give your dog the thing that they want.
Life rewards are as good as a treat. If you think about this, you can start training your dog all through the day in micro-lessons. I think of it as a “trade”. You do this for me and I’ll give you that.
Positive reinforcement training is a learning tool. It does not include being permissive. Dogs can sense whether a human is confident or not. You need to be prepared to hold your dog to your terms, no matter how long it takes. Think of the Zen analogy, “like water on stone”. Quiet determination and persistence sends a very clear message to dogs. No corrections or punishment required.
This goes a long way to keeping your relationship with your dog where it should be. You’re in charge. You are the gateway to all good things in your dog’s life, on your terms. Your dog will look to you for direction. Dogs are most comfortable in this relationship.
So, try to remember the Number One Rule. If you put it into practice, you will see changes in your dog’s behavior very quickly. You can count on it.