What Is Empathic Training?
Updated: Aug 10
October 17, 2019 © Hearts and Hounds Dog Training/
My tagline for Hearts and Hounds Dog Training is “empathic training for your dog.” But what do I mean by that?
There are many definitions of the word “empathy” but most include some version of the following: having the capacity to understand and share the thoughts, feelings or experiences of another by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation. In essence, it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. For example, I empathize with my clients. Although our experiences will not be exactly the same, I can appreciate how overwhelmed they might be feeling with a new puppy or dog, or how challenging it can be dealing with behaviour issues. Through my empathy, I understand. And I want to help.
But I empathize with the dogs too. Through my training classes and private sessions, I strive to teach my clients how to empathize with and understand their dogs so they can have a more harmonious relationship and happier life together. It’s only in the relatively recent past that our pet dogs are being considered less as property and more like family members and while I fully support that (after all, my dog is my fur-kid), we have to realize that they are still dogs. To empathize with them, we need to put ourselves in their heads and paws. Here are some ways of doing that.
ALLOW THEM TO EXPRESS THEIR DOGGY-NESS
We must recognize that dogs have their own species-specific needs. Many of these behaviours are ones that we don’t necessarily approve of in our daily lives, but rather than preventing our dogs from engaging in them, the empathic solution is to provide acceptable outlets to let them express themselves.
Barking is one of several forms of vocalization dogs use to communicate, and their barks differ depending upon the situation. Sometimes we’re thankful for the bark, for example when it’s to alert us to someone approaching our house, or when they have to go out. Sometimes we’re not so happy about it. But we can’t expect our dogs not to bark. They’re trying to tell us something and it’s up to us to determine what they’re trying to say so we can address the reason for it. It’s helpful to teach a Quiet cue which allows the dog to bark then tells them they can stop because we’ve understood their message.
Puppies have a need to chew which begins when they start teething. They chew as a form of exploration — new tastes, new textures, new smells — and when they’re lonely, bored, stressed or anxious. They’ll often chew whatever is within their reach. Some grow out of it and some don’t, but regardless of their age, it’s important for us to recognize their desire to chew and set up their environment to prevent access to things we don’t want them having and provide a variety of safe objects to satisfy their need. Be sure to choose chew toys that are the appropriate size for your dog and that can withstand your dog’s style of chewing (whether they like to bite off large chunks and eat them, shred things and eat the remnants or not, or lick and nibble gently at them.)
Some dogs love to chase anything that moves — cars, skateboards, cats, squirrels, joggers — but we usually don’t want them chasing these things, whether for the safety risk to the one being chased or for our dog. Rather than preventing them from chasing at all, the kinder thing to do is to provide them with a safe outlet to express this behaviour. We can teach them to chase something else in an environment where we can control the safety, and reward them so well for chasing the alternative that they’ll want to choose it instead of the unsafe object of their desire. A flirt pole (essentially a pole with rope attached to it and a tug toy at the end) is an excellent toy for this. Even throwing a ball for them to run after or engaging in a fun game of chase with them yourself can work if they are rewarding enough for your dog.
Digging is another favourite activity of many dogs and many yards bear the tell-tale signs of this. So rather than yelling at your dog for digging in your garden or freshly-lain sod, why not provide her with a place where she can dig to her heart’s content? For example, you could physically delineate a section of your yard where she is free to root around, or build a sandbox. In either case, you will need to prevent her from accessing the old areas while you introduce her to your approved one. Bury some really good, stinky treats in the designated location and help her find them in the beginning. In no time, she’ll be bee-lining across the yard to her new favourite digging spot and you’ll have your lawn back. If you don’t have a yard (or even if you do), the beach is one big sandbox for your digger. Indoors, hide treats in rumpled towels or blankets and let her dig her way to hidden treasure!
You’ve probably noticed your dog sniffing you when you come home, or strangers, the ground, the air or other dogs’ butts on walks. What they’re doing is gathering information. As we experience the world mostly visually, our canine companions experience their world through smell. So let them smell! Especially on leashed walks, let them stop at least some of the time to sniff. Sometimes we can learn a thing or two from our dogs in terms of slowing down to stop and smell the roses!
Dogs in the city are allowed to exercise very little free will for the most part. Some are confined indoors for much of the day with very little to do; those with a yard can have a little freedom within the confines of the yard and, sadly, some of those rarely go anywhere off the property; and those without yards at least get outside to toilet but have to be leashed in accordance with city by-laws or for their own safety. We owe it to our dogs to let them have some freedom. Find places where they can run free. If you don’t trust your dog off-leash, use a long line (20- to 30-foot leash) so they can explore at least a little more of their environment, or take them to a fenced lot or other safe enclosed area. The back yard, while handy, probably doesn’t provide a lot of stimulation for your dog. Take her to new places where she can experience new smells and possibly meet new dogs and people.
Now that we’ve explored how to empathize with our dogs by letting them be dogs, let’s look at empathic training. What does that mean? It means considering the training partnership from the dog’s perspective. There are several ways to do that.
LEARN HOW TO COMMUNICATE
We speak to our dogs in our language of words and expect them to understand us, but fail to learn their primary method of communication which is body language. Through their tails, ears, eyes, mouths/teeth, body posture and vocalizations, dogs tell us when they’re happy, anxious, fearful, curious, want to play, want to be left alone, and many other things. We need to learn how to interpret these communication signals so we can understand what they’re saying. For example, not only is a fearful dog not going to be able to learn as well as a dog who is comfortable and ready to engage with us, but fear is just not a very good feeling! And, contrary to what you may read in some dog training books, it is perfectly okay to comfort your frightened dog. You will not make their fear worse and you will make them feel better.
TEACH YOUR DOG WHAT YOU WANT HER TO DO USING REWARD-BASED TRAINING
We bring them into our human lives and expect them to do only the doggy things that we like: walking with us at our pace to where we want to go, eating only the food we give them, eliminating where and when we give them the opportunity, chewing some things but not others, and the list goes on. We expect them to know not to do certain things but we neglect to teach them what to do instead. Dogs learn through associations and consequences. In reward-based training, we teach our dog that if they do something we like, they will get paid, or rewarded, with something they value (a tasty piece of food, a pat, praise or the chance to play with a favourite toy). As learning theory tells us, the dog will offer those behaviours more and will offer the behaviours that don’t get rewarded less. It’s a win-win for both the human and the dog.
RESPECT WHEN THEY DON'T WANT TO DO SOMETHING
Just because we think it would be fun or advantageous for our dog to do certain things like swim, run with us, or do agility for example, sometimes they may not share our enthusiasm. We need to pay attention to their body language and not force them to do something they clearly don’t want to do. Furthermore, we should try to determine why they’re resisting. Perhaps they’re afraid, in pain, or don’t like being around other people or dogs. If there’s something we can change to improve the dog’s perception of it, they might end up liking it after all. But if they don’t, then we should look for something else that they do enjoy.
RECEIVE AND GIVE AFFECTION (SOME)
We love our dogs and want to shower them with affection, so we do it the way humans do — with a warm embrace. The problem is, some dogs don’t like to be hugged. It’s important to read their body language and if it’s telling us they’re feeling uncomfortable, we should find another way to express our love. Some might like a belly rub. Others might like being stroked on the chest or the head. Some might not be touchy-feely at all and prefer not to be touched. In that case, you might have to settle for some soft-spoken, soothing words. And try not to be offended!
We need to remember that dogs are dogs and not little humans. While we share many of the same emotions, we still see and experience the world in different ways. Through empathy, by considering their uniqueness, striving to see the world from their perspective and ensuring their physical, mental and emotional needs are met, we can bridge the species gap and create a loving, mutually enriching relationship.
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