The Importance of Your Mental Framework – For Dog Trainers and Owners

Posted on September 21st, 2017 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

I think most experienced dog trainers will comprehend the importance of approaching dog training with a correct mindset, even if some of the ways I define “mental framework” provide additional food for thought. But, more importantly, I think dog owers will benefit from grasping the importance of approaching their dog training with a well thought out mental construct.

Being a dog trainer in Denver, Colorado, I have ample opportunity to see dogs and their owners interact. I also get to observe our FetchMasters dog trainers and watch them as they grow in understanding and ability. And the more I observe the dynamics between dogs and people, the more convinced I become that the relationship between our two species is much more nuanced than most people think.

The relationship between humans and dogs goes beyond making your dog see you as the source of yummy treats; or beyond seeing you as its leader (benevolent or otherwise); or beyond any tricks that show your dog that you are the doorway to the things it wants, needs or likes; or beyond any fluffy definition of the term “relationship.”

Dogs typically are much better at reading us than we are at reading them. Not only do they read our body language and understand some of our words, gestures and tones, but they fathom us on an emotional level and are influenced by our state of mind. For example, professional dog trainers recognize that anxious people often have anxious dogs; we discuss it amongst ourselves all the time. Examples of the emotional interplay between dogs and people abound in dog training circles.

But I would argue that a dog’s ability to read, bond with, and cooperate with a human goes a level deeper than any of the aforementioned dynamics. There is a principle I have been consciously using in my dog training for years (although I expect I inadvertantly used it prior to giving it any deep thought — probably the same as most experienced dog trainers), and it just seems to work more often than not. In essence, I design a mental framework that defines the results I want to get. It is based on my belief that dogs can understand their place, boundaries and function in our lives based on signals that emanate from our mindset, attitudes and expectations — our mental framework.

Said another way, I think that our mental frameworks can have profound implications for how our dogs behave. Some people naturally have mental frameworks that produce well-behaved dogs. Some people have mental frameworks that are not conducive to well-behaved dogs, but they can be taught to change their thinking. Other people are just too tied into their presuppositions, philosophies, angst or problems to ever have a strongly cooperative relationship their dogs.

Here are just a couple ideas of how a mental framework can affect your relationship with your dog and your its beahvior and performance.

Seeing Your Dog as a Cooperative Partner

FetchMasters specializes in off-leash reliability and obedience in high-distraction environments with high-drive dogs (often hunting or herding breeds). I can count on one hand the number of dogs in the past several years that I have not been able to gain amazing cooperation from in a fairly short period of time. And we do this without e-collars or overly harsh methods.

While there are a number of training strategies that we use for developing control outdoors, I’m convinced one of the most important ones is intentionally adopting a set of expectations that communicate to the dog that his function is to be in cooperation with us. In other words, I expect the two of us move together, watch and stay engaged with each other, and each of us do our respective jobs; so life outdoors is NOT a free-for-all. It is structured, and I have a very precise definition of what that means.

Once we think through and formalize what being outdoors together is actually about, that definition starts to become who we are and be reflected in how we move, talk, act and communicate. And when understand the parameters that define being outdoors, we become quicker and more consistent about letting our dogs know when they are within (or outside of) those parameters — in other words, you become much more connected to your dog. So, if you adopt a useful mental framework, your dog will start to understand and make leaps in progress. You become different, and so YOUR DOG changes too.

Here is an incorrect and inefficient way of understanding off-leash reliability: Some owners and dog trainers see dogs as separate and independent, doing whatever the hell they please until called. To them, off-leash reliability simply means reliable recall — when dogs are called, they should come.  Such an approach typically utilizes some sort of jackpot with a high-value reward in the positive world, or an e-collar with more aversive approaches. The problem is, there will always be something out there more valuable than the treat or more fear-inducing than the shock. I’ve seen both methods fail several times because they are based soley on reward or punishment, not on relationship, expectations and cooperation.

Indoors Is Not a Place to Act Like an Idiot

We’ve discussed a mental framework for outdoors, so now let’s discuss one for indoors.

Many people have to be on constant guard against their dogs’ mischievous antics: counter-surfing, leaping over furniture, nipping at the heels of the children, stealing the baby’s food. In such cases, there is often a parent trying to manage a complex situation, and the dog is just one more element of the complexity that must be controlled. The parent gets overwhelmed and screams at the dog, the baby starts crying, the parent goes to the baby, and the dog sticks its head in the garbage can as soon as the parent’s attention is diverted. It’s nuts!

It’s almost as if the dog senses the parent’s out-of-control-ness, and so the dog becomes out of control as well. The parent’s mental framework is not focused on a controlled, calm household; instead it is designed to play a chaotic game of whack-a-mole. The dog senses that always-moving, chaotic mindset and mimics it. (Did you know there are dog training protocols that use dogs’ inherent tendency to mimic behaviors in order to train them? It’s true! Could that particular tendency of dogs factor into their ability to mimic our mindset as well?)

Right now, as I type this article, I have three dogs quietly snoozing nearby: a German Shorthaired Pointer (a nutcase if ever there was one), a Lab mix, and a coonhound mix. There is food on the counter, a snack on the table, dogs and people walking by outside, the cat walking through the living room, etc. And they are laying there, just sleeping or watching me and being calm.

Why? Because dog trainers have an advantage? Frankly, I’ve not done much with them to teach them to be calm and ignore all the stimuli that is competing for their attention. They are like this because the my wife (Linda) and I have a pretty strong expectations of how we want our dogs to behave indoors: “Indoors is not a place to act like an idiot.” In times past when they started looking like they might have wanted to spiral out of control, we stopped their worrisome behaviors quickly and made them go to their respective places and calm down. They picked up quickly what was acceptable and what was not. Because we pretty much knew exactly what we wanted, they figured it out too with very little specific training, other than maybe a basic down-stay.

In Conclusion

I’m not saying that one’s mental framework is everything — or even enough. I’m just saying that if you have the right techniques but a poor mental construct, your dog may get mixed messages from you This will make learning harder and more time-consuming than it has to be.

Remember: Dogs are observing EVERYTHING about you — even the freakishly subtle stuff — in order to understand their place in your life. In other words, you are what you think, and that influences who your dog is.