Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop: A Day in the Life of a Bay Area Dog Trainer

A full day of dog training starts with a hardy breakfast. There is nothing like fresh eggs and La Farine bread. On this day my father was visiting. He played fiddle at Saint Roch’s while I danced around a blind Akita named Bubba. Earlier this year my Dad recorded  harmonica tracks for former Velvet Underground member Doug Yule. Check it out here.  To watch our Rooster do a card trick click here

Last post I talked about healing behavior problems from the inside out.  Yesterday I received an email from clients in Berkeley who were feeling the rewards of this approach to training.

We are so grateful that we found Francis Metcalf, the incredible dog trainer at Friends of the Family.  Since we have been working with him, our magnificent Giant Schnauzer has made amazing progress.  We only wish we had not waited until HH was almost five years old.  Since we got him, from a top breeder, at seven months of age, HH has tended to lunge at people (never other dogs) and intimidate them, although he has never bitten anyone.  We therefore have, over all these years, severely limited HH’s contact with other people, which has had a big impact on our lives.

Harry has undergone an amazing change.  He no longer lunges, he is calm around other people, he is seemingly more content and comfortable.  At UC Davis Vet Clinic, where HH goes for medical care, the change was immediately noted by the vets.  Before his training HH would lunge at anyone who entered the examining room.  At his last visit he behaved like a gentleman.  For his ultrasound exam, he did not require sedatives as most dogs would, and remained quietly on his back.  At a local vaccination clinic, previously HH had to be muzzled to receive his shot; since Francis, he has become the perfect patient.
HH loves (that is definitely the right word) his training sessions with Francis and at home.  He gets excited as soon as we approach Francis’ facility and is totally attached to Francis.  Francis has wonderful rapport with HH and is terrific with us—-he has a wonderful manner, a good sense of humor, explains everything very clearly, demonstrates what needs to be done and gives lots of time for practice.
We have read and heard about others who have had disappointing experiences with trainers.  We are very lucky to have found Francis.  And HH is becoming the perfect dog!
W & S, Berkeley

Training out of the box.

Idle hands are the devils workshop

When a trainer talks about the “Idle state,”  we are borrowing from the usage associated with a machine, not a person.  That is, a machine idles, but we don’t think of it as lazy, we think of it as waiting to be engaged.  When your dog “idles” he is in a resting state, not engaged in an activity, not focused. and not in drive.

When your dog idles, his temperament is the most vulnerable.

If I asked you, who will be more frightened by a gunshot: the resting dog or the active dog?  I think most would guess the resting dog.  The idling dog will get startled by the sudden loud noise whereas a dog that is chasing a ball might not even notice.

Most dog owners enjoy the dog most when it is not active. This makes the very moments they wish to enjoy the most demanding on the dog’s temperament. Even a very stable dog can begin to make negative associations if they are exposed to stressors at an idle.  If you take the same dog and get his blood up with drive, focus, and activity, what was once a scarey monster is now on the outskirts of awareness, and not even worth a second glance.  More than that, it is likely the “Scarey Monster” will be associated with the good things and filed under FUN or Neutral in the dogs mind.

When I teach people how to influence the part of temperament that we can control, a quote from General Colin Powell always pops into my head.

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”- General Colin Powell

A dog with a great temperament is perpetually optimistic.  But how do we create perpetual optimism in the dog?

  1. Use rewards, prey drive, and play to raise your dog out of the idle state when exposing him to stimuli that may be distressing.
  2. Shelter your dog from stressors that might occur while he is at a low idle.  For example: If you are about to vacuüm the house, make sure your dog is actively occupied before you appear behind him with the vacuüm cleaner.
  3. Use a reward based system to create positive “hot spots” in the places where stressors might occur. An example of what I’m calling a positive hot spot is the dog park.  In such a spot a nuclear bomb could go off and most dogs would keep playing.  This happens naturally because the dog park is associated in the dog’s mind with having a good time.  Now create the same vigor and optimism in a place where you can have better control over the variables.  If you go to the same park bench every day and train (using a high frequency of reward), the people and things that are around your positive hot spot will be filed under the heading of FUN or Neutral in the dog’s mind.
  4. Learn to change the subject, not prove the point. If a dog gets scared of something, don’t launch into a monologue about why they should not be scared in a cutesy voice for all to hear.  Instead, redirect the dog into an activity or create your own ruse to take the focus off the stressful stimulus.
  5. Lead by example Don’t make the problem worse by acting erratic, nervous, or withdrawn.  If you feel this way, whistle a tune and charge forth!

To create “hot spots,” associate a  place with fun, such as food, toys, and play.  Our training facility is a “Hot Spot” for the dogs who come for lessons. Owners report that their dogs get very excited from miles away on lesson day.  Because the dog feels so optimistic that fun will happen, we can begin to add stressors without creating stress.  This is called habituation.  When your dog is excited about a situation and has a handler he can trust, we have set the stage for true socialization and confidence building.

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7 thoughts on “Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop: A Day in the Life of a Bay Area Dog Trainer

  1. awesome blog entry! such helpful info. i really appreciate the no. 4. “learn to change the subject, not prove the point.”

    • Thanks for commenting Loriel!
      I’m trying to find my voice and all that. So far my formula is: 1 paragraph of personal info, some photos and a video followed by a few bulleted points of information about dog training and or the Bay Area. What do you think?

  2. It’s fantastic. And I think you’ve found your voice. You might be refining it still – but your voice is here, loud and clear. I also appreciate that it sounds like you are keeping it real. I know sometimes trainers might bite their tongues in order to not offend. That’s something you should hold on to – keep it edgy AND feel-good.

  3. Hey thanks for the great info , rewarding dog always work in aspects of training but the scared problem has no clue how to not get him scared of certain things , mine one scared by sounds of vehicle horns 😦

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