Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mental & Environmental Training Techniques

Food for thought:

There is no denying that there are a lot of different training techniques out there in the world. But when you come right down to it, you are really only working in two different mediums when you're trying to bring about a change in your dog's behavior.

You are either working with environmental management, or mental management - often both are used/needed at the same time.

Let's look at environmental management first.

Environmental management can be anything you use in your dog's environment that will change its natural behaviors. This includes leashes and collars. It also includes crates or other enclosures, muzzles, baby gates, and anything else used to curb or control a dog's natural responses to its world.

Environmental control is incredibly handy when training dogs. Leashes and collars keep them close to you when you're out in the world. Crates, dog runs, and fenced yards keep them home when they want to roam. Muzzles can prevent bites and chewing.

All of these pieces of equipment are extremely helpful in our day-to-day interactions with our dogs. However, there is a limit to how useful they can be.

By example, dogs can still pull with their leashes on (and leashes and collars can break or be pulled out of your hands). Crates, kennels, and gates can be left unlocked or dogs can jump or break out of them. Some dogs are very effective at getting out of their muzzles or head collars. Even electronic collars can fail.

This is where mental management of the dog comes into play.

Mental management is any measure of training you do to control a dog's responses to its world. This ranges from basic manners to distraction-proofing, obedience, agility, or trick training.

Any skill you teach the dog to do is a form of mental management. And mental management can be very important if your environmental controls happen to fail.

Again, by example:

If your leash happens to slip out of your hand and your dog has been properly distraction-proofed, your dog is not likely to go racing away from your side after any little distraction. You have time to regain your leash and get your dog's environment back into control.

How about if you're having a dinner party and your young niece opens your dog's crate? An owner with good mental management of his dog can simply give the dog a down-stay command and the situation is under control again.

However, we must keep in mind that dogs are individuals with their own personalities and the ability to make choices. Even in the best-trained dogs, sometimes mental management can fail. Dogs can choose not to obey.

Also, there are some instances when environmental management is simply easier than mental management: When leaving my dogs alone, it's just easier to make sure all the food and trashcans are securely out of the dogs' reach than to spend weeks and weeks teaching them to stay out of the trash by setting them up to think I'm gone and then charging back in to surprise the perpetrator whose head is buried 2 feet into the dumpster.

Don't get me wrong, setting the dog up and teaching it to stay out of the trashcans CAN be done, and for a lot of people this is a major goal. That's great. It's just not on my top ten, as it's a quick fix for me to shut the doors to the rooms where the trash is accessible.

In sum, a combination of both mental and environmental management is really your best bet. Spend time and think about what in your dog's environment and mental responses can be improved to keep you both happy and safe.

That's it from this end of the leash.

Jennfier Hime is the owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO. She can be contacted at or 720-839-1102, or on the web at