PASSION and PRESSURE: Are you empowering or overpowering your dog?

I've been teaching agility seminars since the early 1990s. Back then, when I was young, R+ training was not commonly used, even in agility training, and it felt like an uphill battle. I used to be quite the zealot in my seminars. I was passionate in my presentation of dog's choice training. Passionate about my beliefs, my viewpoint and the way I choose to train. While I remember loving the job, it must have been difficult sometimes for the attendees to really hear my message through all that opinionated zeal. There's a lot of pressure from passion. It's hard to learn new stuff under pressure. I have a more empathetic approach now. I learned the hard way to practice inspiration rather than coerce others to train my way.

Passionate for Positive Training... or a Zealot? 

In those seminars, I could not let it go if someone flat-out disagreed with me, and it happened all the time. I felt I had to explain, and rephrase, and push, push for my way of thinking. I was motivating dogs in all sorts of then-unusual ways. I had the credentials to back it up, making USDAA national finals twice with a Rottie and twice with a Springer Spaniel. People really did want to know how I did it, and my seminars were packed. I was convinced that everyone would benefit from my approach and that the way to success with most dogs was through my door. I had a powerful new message for agility. Unfortunately, I also displayed a zealot's passion.

And oh, the resistance. My point here with you now is that I realize my message was often lost as I argued. There was resistance to my different approach, and my zeal only made it worse.

Passion is not the same as belief or commitment. Zeal and passion are emotional, and they can be overdone when we are trying to influence another sentient being. Passion can get in the way of the message because it can be very difficult for others to process through all that emotion.

Why Passion Can Lead to Pressure

It's that way for our dogs as well.

Our passion often translates as pressure. Pressure is not our friend in dog training.

When does an option feel like a thinly veiled threat? When does a suggestion feel to you, the trainer, like an invitation but feel to the dog, the learner, like unwelcome pressure? How do you feel when you receive an unwanted 'suggestion?' Pressure can look like an invitation but feel to the learner like a gun to the head. A gun to your head will motivate you, for sure! But it doesn't help you feel attraction for the lesson; quite the opposite. And it doesn't create the mental state which we are trying to foster with R+ training. With influencing people and with training dogs, be aware of the unintended effect you might be having. No matter how much you want what you want in the moment, learn to control your passion when you train.

The more we want something when we train, the more we can put unbearable pressure on our dogs. Sometimes they might like to buy in, but the pressure of your zeal is pounding them with too much coercion. That coercion is mental force! To many dogs, it is a gun to the head. Whether the student is a seminar attendee or a dog in training with us, we need to temper our passion so that we can be understood and our message can be processed. Leave the pressure out of it. Let your dog's mind open on its own terms. That's the only way for your dog to welcome your message. And that is your dog's road to Empowerment.

This is the handler's role in preparing the dog's mind. Bring your belief into the training session, for sure. You should not be there without it. Bring your love and your commitment to the session. Bring your open-mindedness, your A game of observation, and your sense of fun. But save your zeal for the excited phone call to your friend when your training session is done. Your Empowerment dog needs space and time to process. Step back. Let him think. Take the pressure off.

E138: Denise Fenzi and Shade Whitesel - "The Space...
E137: Cat Warren - "What the Dog Knows"