September 5, 2016Meagan Karnes7 CommentsGeneral Training

“The dog bit the boy.”

It’s a simple statement. And no – the dog didn’t really bite someone. Just hang with me for a moment.

Now how about this? 

“The boy bit the dog.”

That simple statement takes on an entirely new meaning. All we have to do is change the order of the words and we’ve completely transformed the sentence.

Welcome to your grammar lesson for the day. Like I’ve told you a thousand times – I’m a giant nerd. Sue me. 

First I’m comparing Algebra to dog training, and now I’m using grammar lessons to make my point. When will the madness stop? 

But here’s the plain and simple truth – order matters. It matters in grammar, and it matters in dog training. And it’s something many dog owners and handlers, whether brand new to this dog training thing, or crazy experienced, tend to neglect. 

Here are a few examples. See if any resonate with you. 

  • A client of mine calls her dog to come, without teaching the dog what “COME” means. Order matters. 
  • Many trainers use corrective collars to teach dogs lessons, without first teaching the dog what the collar pressure means and how to avoid it or turn it off. Order matters. 
  • Many folks teach obedience commands before they have engagement or focus. Order matters. 
  • A client of mine, upon our initial consultation told me she struggled to get her dog to focus on walks. And threw in at the end that her dog was human aggressive…….right after the dog had snapped at me. Order matters.
  • Another client of mine consistently used toys in his training but couldn’t get his dog to let the toy go or bring it back. So training sessions inevitably went awry and were terribly unproductive. Order matters. 
  • Folks with reactive dogs teach obedience at home and try to get their dog to focus around other dogs without dealing with the reactivity first. Order matters. 

The thing is, you have to have fundamentals in place before you can expect compliance from your dog. And you have to teach your dog what your words mean before you can bark commands at him. If your dog isn’t complying with your wishes, it isn’t a sign he’s being stubborn or being “alpha”. It’s far more likely that you’ve simply confused him. And for that reason, you’ve got work to do.

Now I get it – it’s only natural to jump into obedience first. Everyone starts there. Many (not all) group classes focus on teaching the basics (sit, down, stay, heel and come) while completely neglecting the fundamentals you need in place to get those things right. Heck, when I was working with my own dog, back before I was a dog trainer myself, all of my trainers focused on three primary things – sit, down and stay. All on lead. Over and over again. Never mind that my dog was aggressive with people. Never mind that he was completely out of his mind around other dogs. Never mind that back then I was tiny, meek, and frail and trying to manage an 85lb dog alligator rolling at the end of his leash trying to get at anything that moved. We didn’t deal with those things because we were trying to “give him a job” and teach him to “do something else” to keep his mind off of all of his stress. 

I liken those lessons to someone telling me to just sit down on the couch and stay there when I’m having anxiety. Yeah….that would totally work. (sense sarcasm). A better option would be for me to get to the root of my anxiety. And the same goes for our dogs. 

But this doesn’t just apply to dogs with anxiety. It applies to any dog, whether it’s the family pet that simply can’t focus when out and about, or the working dog that checks out on the training field, or fixates on something (other dog??? decoy???) and just won’t reel it back in. 

Order matters…. in grammar and in dog training. 

We have to teach the fundamentals first. We need to teach our dogs what our words mean and we have to give them reinforcement history, setting precedents before we ask for the tough stuff.  If we are using correctional collars, we need to teach our dogs how to respond to those collars – what the collars mean and how they can avoid or turn off the pressure. We need to get strategic about what distracts our dogs and get to the root of it, using those distractions to drive our training instead of struggling through them. And we have to work our dogs through the things that are really challenging, instead of forcing them to take a stationary position and simply “deal”.

Here are some tips that might help: 

  1. Teach focus and engagement first – If your dog learns to be with you, learns to work with you and learns that you are pretty darn awesome, you’ll have a much easier time getting all the tough stuff later down the road. Spend time rewarding engagement and focus. Reward your dog for simply being with you. And don’t throw your dog to the wolves when you first start out. Build your dog’s focus at home first, in a quiet setting. And SLOWLY add in distractions. It’s up to you to set your dog up for success.
  2. Teach your dog about consequences – Teach your dog how to earn rewards and what your reinforcement looks like. Teach him contrast. Show him how he gets the good stuff, and what actions turn off those rewards. And if you use compulsion or corrective collars in your training, PLEASE teach your dog what they mean before employing them – remember, order matters. (And if you don’t know how to use rewards right or can’t get your dog interested in them, you need to learn how to build your dog’s work ethic and use your rewards more strategically. And if you don’t know how to teach your dog about your training collar, you need to learn that first. Get with a trainer that can help.)
  3. Teach your dog your words – Your dog isn’t born speaking English. I promise. So it’s up to you to show your dog what your words mean. You need to spend a significant amount of time on this and you need to work your way up the distraction scale. If your dog checks out, take it back to basics. Non compliance isn’t a sign of a stubborn dog. It’s a symptom of a communication problem and YOU my friend, need to be a detective and get to the bottom of it!
  4. Behavior before obedience – If your dog suffers from aggression, reactivity, fear or anxiety, or if your dog simply gets overstimulated by his environment, fix that first. Get with a good trainer that doesn’t force obedience to fix the problem. Once your dog starts to improve, you can add in some fun obedience games and start to work up to control around the hard stuff, but trust me when I say that, from experience, and in my not so humble opinion, forcing your dog to hold a position when things get really tough just won’t cut it. Not only is this really hard on your dog, it’s a hard thing for you as his owner to be consistent about. Your trainer has no emotional attachment to your dog, but YOU do. So while your trainer might be able to get really tough, it’s very common for us, as our dog’s best friend, to struggle to achieve the same level of control. Just sayin’….

I preach it all the time, I know. Fundamentals matter. And I say it because more than anything, fundamentals are what we tend to neglect. Your words and actions mean nothing to your dog until you give them meaning. So spend time here, forming associations and setting precedents before moving on. 

I’m not going to tell you step by step how to do it here. That would take a novel….seriously. If you need help laying your foundation, I created a course specifically for that. You can check it out HERE. But how you go about giving your words meaning is totally up to you. Choose what works best for you and make sure you tackle your fundamentals in a low distraction environment first, slowly adding in the tough stuff and revising fundamentals EVERY TIME your environment changes. 

And make sure that:

“The Man (or Woman!) trained the dog” doesn’t become “The dog trained the Man (or Woman)”. Because order matters to your dog. Make sure it matters to you too.


Chelsey Montgomery