Dog Trainers Reveal Powerful Teaching Strategies

My wife and I recently had an incredibly powerful and insightful learning experience. In fact, we both agreed that after 80 years of combined work experience in education, this learning experience was extraordinary.

For almost four years we have been challenged and frustrated by our 6 year old boxer dog, Tony. We rescued Tony from a Southern California animal shelter with virtually no knowledge of his past, other than that he had spent much of his young life on the streets. Although we fell in love with Tony almost immediately, within a week we started to see some serious reactive behaviors when walking on a leash. Without provocation, Tony lunged at people and other dogs. His behavior became so troublesome that we avoided walking him around the neighborhood, and carefully chose where we would take him.

After nearly four years and five dog trainers, we saw minimal progress – until we recruited the help of trainers Matt Beisner (from the TV show “Dog Impossible”) and Zuki Patterson (an experienced trainer of Fairfield). Over two days, Matt and Zuki guided Tony, Pat and I through an in-depth analysis of Tony’s behavioral issues, our perspectives and expectations regarding canine behavior, how to better understand the conceptual bases of these behaviors and ways to address them. .

As outstanding school teachers, Matt and Zuki accomplished their work with passion, intelligence and creativity. Above all, they took the time to deeply understand the antecedent variables that contributed to Tony’s responsiveness. In doing so, they approached the problem both inductively (for example, connecting the “dots” between seemingly disparate micro-behaviors to arrive at a theory of action to explain what triggered a behavior problematic like rushing on a leash) and deductively (for example, looking at potentially dangerous behavior like sudden reactivity towards people and unpacking its causal factors).

Diagnosis is an essential dimension of effective teaching. Matt shared a conceptual framework (LEGS) created by canine behaviorist Kim Brophey that helped us better diagnose the range of underlying factors influencing Tony’s behaviors. Brophy’s framework consists of four components:

• Learning: What a dog learns from his experiences.
• Environment: The many aspects of a dog’s environment.
• Genetics: The breed-specific characteristics that drive behavior.
• Self: Unique internal characteristics such as age, gender, health, trait anxiety, individual quirks.

Matt and Zuki then took us on a deeper dive into several guiding principles shaped by Brophey’s framework to refine our understanding of Tony’s problematic behaviors and develop targeted strategies to address them. Here are some important principles that emerged from these discussions.

• Search for antecedent stimuli. Inappropriate behaviors in dogs are generally related to elements of the Brophey framework. Unprovoked reactive behaviors are almost always influenced by deeper issues and layers of stress that build up until the dog’s adaptive capacity is exceeded. Understanding the causal factors leading to undesirable behaviors is an essential step towards developing corrective interventions.
• Keep it simple. Focus on a few important behavioral dimensions and gradually build capacity. Helping a dog learn to change its behavior is a marathon, not a sprint.
• Strive for small wins. For example, rewarding a simple turn of the head away from a stimulus that normally triggers reactive behavior can help a dog develop stronger coping skills and more positive reactions. Also, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good (sometimes the good is good enough).
• One size does not fit all. No two dogs are the same. Nor the strategies used to train them.
• Have an “out”. Never let reactive behavior get out of control. Have safe places where your dog can retreat. Let the dust settle and try again later.

Matt and Zuki were absolutely masterful (and delicious). Their knowledge, practical skills and professional dispositions were skilfully and astutely shared. It is amazing how much quality education can transcend professional fields.

Stephen Davis is a career educator who writes a column that runs every other Wednesday in the Daily Republic. Contact him by email at [email protected].