I have long admired Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT, and have read her book, Control Unleashed, several times. The first time being early in my career, and it had a lot of influence on me. Leslie teaches how to use games and communication to affect behavior change, and build confidence, trust and focus in the learner. I love that.
It is that kind of approach to teaching that I am continually striving to improve upon because I see learning in a positive way as discovery and enrichment and empowerment. It is an ongoing process that has huge capacity for improving the quality of life for every student and teacher.
There are so many factors that contribute to dog and parrot training effectiveness; one of those is the nonverbal conversation between both the giver and receiver of information. At any given moment in our relationship, our pets are giving us feedback as to how they are feeling about their environment. They may turn or move away, lick their lips or yawn, stare straight at a stimulus or avoid eye contact, growl or play bow, walk slowly or pull forward or sit and plant their feet stationary when on leash, take food gently or grab it quickly.
If we, as their caretakers, their protectors and their trainers, do not ‘listen to’ and heed what they are trying to tell us, that confidence, trust, focus, and discovery can all break down. Their capacity to learn what it is we are trying to teach breaks down. And our relationship can break down as well.
Earlier this summer I completed IAABC’s two-month Control Unleashed Mentorship with Leslie. In the first week, she shared with us how she has always seen her CU Program as being about that conversation about the environment between itself and its handler, allowing the dog to process information while remaining in a calm and handler-focused (think and learn) state. The dog is empowered by being able to ask to work more or less, to move closer or farther away from something; and to have those requests listened to.
What does this mean? Here are a few personal examples of conversations with a few animals I either have or have trained.
My conversation with a bird
When Dreyfuss, my pionus, is on a window perch, she will either stretch a leg or a wing, stand still, or spread her wings if I come near and she does not want to step up in that moment. On the other hand, if she does want to step up, she may shift her body weight back and forth, lean slightly forward, come closer to me, and even hold one leg up.
If I didn’t understand her body language, and moved my arm in to her body (putting it in a place where she was clearly trying to indicate non-aggressively that she didn’t want there) she would lunge. If that didn’t work, she would escalate her behavior to a bite.
When this happens with other bird owners, often the unknowing person may define their as being dominate, territorial or mean; but as you can see above, really it was just a case of a bird trying to communicate non-aggressively that she wanted to stay where she was at. Unfortunately, with repeated experience, that bird may come to realize the ONLY effective way to communicate with humans is to lunge at or bite them to get them to back off.
Learning how to have that conversation with Dreyfuss, to understand how she communicates, has helped me to modify her behavior in the most humane and positive way. I never force her to step up. I teach her that stepping up gets her good things and we practice it. When she is on a perch and she does her ‘want to step up’ behaviors, I walk over to her and offer my arm. In this two-way conversation, we are both listening to each other. Dreyfuss is being empowered by having an effective, non-aggressive way to tell me what she wants. And, as a result, she wants to step up more.
A conversation with a dog
The other day, I was at the house of a new client and demonstrating how to teach a reliable sit behavior. We were in a room of their house and before beginning to train, this was a dog that was interacting with me and soliciting attention. However, when I stood there, still and facing him, waiting for him to sit, he would not stop moving.
Was this a case of a dumb or obstinate dog? Nope. This was a dog that was feeling uncomfortable with that pressure. As soon as I turned away and focused in another direction, he came up and sat at my feet. I was able to click and toss a treat away, and he came back and repeated his sit. We had a great game going. And, very quickly as his confidence grew, I was able to face him and he sat.
Without that two-way conversation, a trainer may have felt the need to increase pressure on him instead of decreasing pressure, which ultimately helped both of us succeed.
How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping you change behavior in the most positive way.