In response to questions about yesterday’s column on relationships, I’ve been asked to talk about dogs (or horses) who smell fear. The most complex issue in animal handling is how intention, the handler’s intention, is a key to successful communication. I just read an article about horses that helps a bit. When a so called dog or horse whisperer or even a faith healer tells you that if you imagine it- it will be, there is a great deal of pressure on you to become magic. If it doesn’t happen does that mean you imagined it incorrectly? You didn’t believe? You didn’t want it badly enough?
The problem is that dogs (and horses) don’t pontificate about how your actions seemed to feel or whether your energy was uncluttered. They just respond or not in a way you want or not. The mistaken impression is that you are somehow controlling the mind of the dog (or horse) when it goes well. The truth is you only need to control your own mind.
This power of intention has often been explained disastrously as “he’ll smell your fear” and take advantage. This really is a proper simplification but it leads the average animal handler to believe she is powerless in the face of fear because somehow the dog “will know”. It’s a little more complicated than that. If you are afraid or distracted or angry, your intention is not clear. Not to you, not to anyone else. In the face of mixed messages most of us will opt out or defend ourselves. So rather than send a mixed message, own it. Telling a dog (or horse), “I am afraid so this is what we are going to do”, is an intention he can understand.
If a trainer tells you, “Don’t stop now. You’re letting him win”. Stick up for yourself and your animal. No one is in a war so there is no “winning”. It’s a relationship that you want to be based on the belief that you will never intentionally hurt each other. So if you are unsure and your intention is to quit for now, do that directly. Make it your intention to quit. Not because you are mad or failing or the dog is not listening or the trainer gave bad advice, but because you want to.
When you get frustrated or realize your plan is not working out the way it did in your head, here are a few other options.
- Stop and work on something you both know well.
- Go back to an easier step in the lesson when things were working.
- Take a deep breath and try again more slowly and with a picture in your mind of what would have happened if everything had worked.
- Give your dog a break and practice on your own.
If you decide to struggle through a rough patch, one thing I don’t recommend is talking at your partner while you work. Try singing, instead. Singing engages parts of your brain that may have gone off duty with frustration or fear. Singing can also relax you but most importantly makes you seem un-afraid. This can help you focus on all the movements you are making that are confusing to others. When we are nervous, our fine motor skills suffer. We get a little jerky and spastic. Dogs may not know when you are afraid but jerky and spastic is quite obvious. It also makes it more likely that you will drop items like leashes and treats, or mishandle the dog when you reach for him or a toy. You may put tension in the leash (or reins) and send those mixed messages no one understands.
I also recommend looking at the tools that professional trainers use. You might feel silly in a fishing vest or wearing a nail apron but these items free up your hands and hold things you would normally reach for. These extraneous movements can easily be assumed part of the request to a dog or horse. Video tape yourself if you don’t believe me. You’ll be shocked how much your hands fly around and how much your partner attends to these motions.
If the lesson is simply going nowhere fast, get a friend to help, use a trained dog, or actually pretend your dog is right there. When I took my first clicker training course the instructor had us shout out when we thought a tossed ball had reached it’s highest point. Get your mechanical skills in place, before you bring in the dog. Agility competitors run the course several times alone before they would dream of showing their dogs the obstacles in a trial. That way, their intention to go to this jump or that hoop is clear to their partner from the start.
Remember, your imagination is changeable but while visualizing what you will do your body and mind are getting ready to do it. Even this type of pre practice can help. If you drive it’s the same lesson as looking at the horizon ahead instead of at the dashboard or worse, your hands! When you have the intention of succeeding your body and mind will work together in a way that shows the dog where you are going. He may just choose to come along.
In other words, he can smell your fear but if you tell him it’s about a training task and not because you are being followed by cannibals or you are about to fall into a sink hole he has the ability to say, “Oh, you mean you are afraid to do this? Well, watch me, then”. And that’s what I mean by it’s all in the relationship. Let him help you sometimes. He’s just been waiting for you to ask.