Training is all about building a relationship; believe and enjoy the process” – Enric Girones (author of this piece)
Training is all about building a relationship, believes Dubai-based trainer Enric Girones. “When you start training a dog the main goal is to build a strong relationship based on trust and create a two-way communication between the human and the dog. It is not about having a dog who does what you want, it is about having a happy and confident dog who loves engaging with you. You cannot achieve this without having empathy for your dog. You need to first understand and listen to him/her. To do that, I do not understand any other approach that does not involve kindness, choice, positive reinforcement etc. By training a dog with kindness and empathy you’ll build a strong relationship with them based on trust, and I see it very difficult doing it in another way.”
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Could you share some real-life examples of how reactive/anxious dogs have responded to empathy-based training?
Enric: When we say a dog is ‘reactive’ sometimes people tend to misunderstand the situation. A reactive dog is one who is communicating that s/he is not comfortable with something or a situation. We need to respect that communication, accept it and work together. If we try to ‘fix’ the problem rather than understanding what the dog is telling us, we’re not helping. We’re just telling the dog to stop communicating which is not good. Our job is to understand what our dog is telling us and manage the situation accordingly. The moment the dog is happy, comfortable and trusts us, the communication is totally different.
When a dog is anxious, insecure, scared etc, our job is to raise his/her confidence. And I believe in doing so by creating choices and reinforcing the desirable ones. For example, there was a rescue dog who had a bite history with the family members. The dog was insecure and since his lower communication was not respected, he reached a point of escalating the communication wherein he had to bite. Thankfully, his empathetic humans understood the training plan perfectly. They changed their life around their dog and never gave up. The ‘only’ thing they had to do was respect the dog and his space and reinforce good choices that the dog was making. Gradually their relationship started getting stronger. But it must be remembered that training is a lifetime process of learning, one that can be an enjoyable.
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Do you think punishment-based techniques can negatively impact canine welfare?
Enric: There are many approaches, and everyone will defend their own. Thankfully, over the years science is demonstrating that a choice-based approach has many more benefits. Not just with dogs but with other species as well. Choice-based approach takes longer because you are working on the problem, rather than fixing it. It is not about changing one piece for another, and the problem is solved.
When you use positive punishment to stop a behaviour, you’re not working on it, you’re stopping it. For example, let’s says the dog is communicating and positive punishment is applied, no doubt the dog is learning. But s/he is learning that every time s/he communicates an unpleasant consequence will follow. By doing so, the dog will get more frustrated, anxious, and it will lead to an escalation of the communication. We humans feel the same way when we cannot express ourselves, don’t we? Now imagine the possibility of facing a negative consequence every time we want to express ourselves. The difference is from most people’s perspective when a dog communicates its not good. But it is great because you can understand your dog better and help him/her.
What are some key things that pet parents must be willing to do while engaging with a trainer?
Enric: There are so many things involved here. I’ll mention some:
- Having realistic expectations, we cannot expect to have a house if we don’t build it first.
- Trust the process, especially when the approach is choice-based. We need to trust the process because we won’t see improvement in a couple of sessions. There are so many things to do before you can see some improvements.
- Change things around and put effort. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome. Change things around to help your dog and put a lot of effort to achieve the realistic goals you have.
- Have patience, don’t be in a hurry. As mentioned before, it is a lifetime process, it is not about how many sessions you need. Sessions happen every time you interact with your dog. It’s not just when the professional is with you. You need to have patience because a dog’s behaviour can change very often and you need to understand how to manage every situation that is presented. That’s the reason why professionals are there to guide you through the process. The faster you want to go, the slower you will go. Try to get a balance of your dog and your learning speed.
Finally, what’s your go-to approach/principle while training a dog?
Enric: I’m a firm believer of a choice-based approach, not just with dogs but many different species that I’ve been fortunate to work with during my career. And I’ve seen such great results and so many lives changed for good. I didn’t do this all by myself, but along with many good professionals who I’ve been fortunate to work with, especially my mentors when I started my career. How fast you will see results depends on each case, dog and the family members. My recommendation is ‘believe and enjoy the process’.