One of the earliest lessons I learned about dog training was this: Never, ever, ever train your dog when you’re in a bad mood. Initially, I thought, That’s odd. Training always puts me back in a good mood. But I ultimately realized that in order to have a joyful and successful training session, the good attitude must come before training starts.
Now if you’re wondering if your dog can actually pick up on a vibe, think about this scenario: While you were out, your dog redecorated (read: destroyed) something—and made a huge mess. What’s your emotional response?
- Fear for his well-being—or yours? (“That’s my mother’s great-grandmother’s antique quilt!”)
- Concern that your poor dog was lonely and had to redecorate your house to alleviate his boredom?
Whatever your emotion, it probably was not joy or happiness. And whether you gasped, laughed, yelled, or stood in stunned silence, your dog felt that vibe, which caused them to have an emotional reaction as well. Maybe they:
- Ran away (“Feet, do your stuff!”)
- Groveled (“It wasn’t me—this time it really was the cat!”)
- Tried to alleviate the stress he was feeling by racing around the house (“Don’t mind the mess. Let’s play chase!”)
- Didn’t even notice your vibe until he went through his usual greeting response and then, slowly, realized that something was … “off.” Kind of like that friend who was nonstop talking to you about something exciting and then suddenly asks, “Um … you OK?” when most of humankind could have instantly seen that you weren’t.
These are just a few of a multitude of responses a dog could have. But the bottom line is that at some point, your mood will impact your dog in some way.
My most “educational” experience on this topic was when I was showing my first competitive sports dog, Opal, in our first regional obedience trial. I was 21, new to the sport, and I’d been preparing for this competition for over a year. The pressure I put on myself to do well was unbelievable.
On day one, we began our first class, and I swore that everyone could see my hands and knees shaking during the off-leash heeling exercise, and hear that my voice was suddenly three octaves higher than usual. We finished that exercise with only a half-point deduction, and instead of feeling more relaxed, I felt more stressed than before!
The next exercise was the drop on recall. I called her to come (she did), then I told her to down (she didn’t), and with that, we were instantly given a zero. A zero for an exercise doesn’t disqualify you, but your odds of doing well are similar to New Jersey having a snowstorm in August.
At that moment, I felt simultaneously devastated and relieved. I’m certain that if I hadn’t fought back tears, I would have cried right then and there. Instead, I laughed, I played with Opal as we moved toward the next exercise, and set her up for the retrieve. When I threw the dumbbell, I noticed my hands weren’t shaking. When I sent her to get it!, I noticed my voice was back to normal. And as she raced back to me, I noticed something else: I was smiling.
You know who else noticed? Opal.
We finished the class with her last exercises being her most brilliant, and over the next two days, as I had more fun, she got better and better. Of course, I would have preferred learning this lesson in the privacy of an outdoor field with just the two of us versus in front of all the people at a regional event, but even though I was told about this in the early stages of my dog training career, the truth is …
Words Don’t Teach
Sometimes—most times—you have to experience the “thing” to really understand it. And then you’re able to teach it to others. One of my longtime students has a brilliant Labrador Retriever, Marvin, who’s off-leash trained, a certified therapy dog, and is starting agility. He’s a lovely “what else can I do for you?” type of dog.
A few weeks ago, they came to class and Marvin was unusually rowdy. He was ignoring his owner’s commands, jumping up on her, and barking at her nonstop. This dog bore zero resemblance to the one she normally brought to class!
After the typical questions—“Does he have to go to the bathroom?” “Has he not been exercised enough today?” and the humorous, “What did you put in his breakfast?”—yielded “no” after “no,” I decided the best course of action was to put him back on leash to help him be successful.
Later that night, his owner texted me and apologized. A few days prior, her husband revealed that he wanted a divorce. She was in shock, and thought that going to class, seeing her friends, and training her dog would be a welcome diversion. Instead, her dog could feel how upset she was and their performance suffered.
Obviously, I felt terrible, and told her that while coming to class might have been a great idea to take her mind off of things, the minute she noticed the wheels coming off (so to speak), she should have left early and done something else to decompress.
Happily, she returned to class last week; she was feeling much better, and was so excited to be back training Marvin. And that day, their performance was a reflection of how much happier she felt.
Fun, Fun, Fun
So how do you switch from a sour mood to a great one before you start a training session? Easy.
Play—don’t train!—with your dog. If you have time, go for a walk, jog, or hike. If you don’t, ask for fun trick commands, or throw a toy. And maybe when you’re in a better mood and frame of mind, you may want to start training. Or not.
But whatever you do … Never ever, ever train your dog when you’re in a bad mood.