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Honing Your Training Skills: Observation

There are at least two sides to every training team—the dog and their human. And although I’m called a dog trainer, I really teach people. My goal is to make myself obsolete by giving my clients the knowledge they need to continue helping their dogs thrive in our human-centric world. With each of my dog-human teams, I focus on training skills like observation, patience, marker-timing, and creativity.

The great trainer Kathy Sdao suggests that observation is the most important skill to develop when training your dog. At any time—not only in training sessions—you can reinforce behaviors you’d like to encourage, especially when your dog chooses to do them without being asked. Is your dog laying quietly on his bed? Reinforce that choice with a little treat delivered between his paws or a quiet, but enthusiastic “good boy!” Did your dog choose to sit instead of jump on you when you got home from work? Reinforce that choice with pets and attention.

Observing also involves noting patterns in your dog’s behavior:

  • When does he nap?

  • When does she bark?

  • When does she tend to get jumpy or mouthy?

  • What frightens her?

  • What makes her whole body wiggle?

And watching body language:

  • Ears: Where is she holding them on her head? High and forward? Pulled back? Out to the side like airplane wings?

  • Eyes: Are they soft and relaxed or tense with ridges around them? Are they wide enough that you can see the whites of them? Are the pupils dilated?

  • Mouth: Is it open slightly but relaxed? Closed? Is her tongue relaxed or tight (it may look like a spatula if she experiences stress)? Are his lips pulled back and long?

  • Tail base and tail: Is her tail lifted? Tucked? Neutral? Low but wagging gently? Wagging softly? Wagging with stiffness?

  • Posture: Is she standing tall? Is she crouched? Is she standing evenly on all four feet? Is she leaning forward? Backward? Is one paw raised?

The more you observe your dog, the more you can anticipate their needs, redirect their behavior, learn more about who they are, and build a stronger bond.

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