Low-Stress, High-Result Learning

     Dogs communicate with each other in complex ways, not through speech, but through their highly developed observational and gestural skills.  Dogs write their War and Peace with the flick of a tail here and the twitch of an ear there, calibrating and managing every nuance of social hierarchy and every move in the hunt for resources in the wild.

     Likewise, dogs watch us human beings carefully.  Their success in reading our intentions and inclinations has enabled them to enter into our homes, and more important, into our hearts.  But communication is supposed to be a two-way street, and we have lost the old stockmen’s and farming families’ ability to read what dogs try to tell us.  What we are missing in consequence is information about the clarity, or lack thereof, of the dogs’ understanding of what we want them to do do, and about their confidence that they will be safe with us while they figure out the solution.  In a word, we miss crucial information about how much stress a dog is experiencing.

     All learning is physiologically and psychologically stressful to some extent.  With heightened concentration, for example, blood pressure increases.  Some stress is unavoidable.  But as studies of dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees, parrots, and human beings have shown, the best and fastest learning occurs when there is the least consciously felt stress. 

     If we want training to succeed, we must recognize that the more stress a dog feels, the harder it will be for that dog to learn.  This interference with the learning process leads to frustration for both the trainer and the dog.

    Suppose someone asked you to repeat a complicated series of letters, words, and numbers that you had just been taught.  Now imagine that the person yelled at you, acted in a threatening way, and even hit you while you tried to answer.  You would be thinking more about the threat posed by the behavior of the questioner than the answer to the question!  That is what classical conditioning with choke chains or pinch collars does to dogs, and it is counterproductive to all good training.

     We do not do ourselves or the dog any service when we add stress to the learning situation.  Stay calm and positive and use the right training techniques, however, and the results will speak for themselves.  The first and most important step to limiting a dog’s stress is paying attention to its mood.


What’s In

Let the Dog Decide