Dog Training Small Details Produce Big Results

Back when I lived in Seattle, I was a member of a local Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school. I highly recommend everyone try doing some form of martial arts. I benefitted greatly from the experience. There were many lessons along the way, both intentional and some that I learned through osmosis. For example, after one particularly frustrating session, I asked the Head Professor why on some days I did very well, and on others (such as that day) I felt I was no better than a beginner. He told me it takes many years to become a black belt in BJJ, and instead of viewing my progress from week to week, to look at my progress in 4 month intervals. He also said, in BJJ, sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. That small detail was a gold nugget that I still treasure. I also took that bit of wisdom and teach that to all my dog training students. Sometimes they won’t have great days, sometimes their dog won’t have a great day, and to not put so much pressure on themselves or their dog, but instead to allow the learning process to work things out.

I also learned another important life lesson when sparring with the Head Professor. One afternoon, I was sparring with him, a 4th level black belt in BJJ. Here I’m sweating and using all my strength, yet failing to get even one hold on him. At the same time, he’s comfortably talking and joking around with the other guys who were waiting their turn. He wasn’t sweating. He wasn’t using much strength at all. He’d offer me an arm or leg, let me try to get a lock, and then he’d effortlessly slip out of that and offer me something else. A wrist this way, a leg that way, an ankle another way, fractions of an inch or at a small difference in timing or speed made his efforts extremely efficient. He had amazing technique and leverage. I had beginner technique, even though I’d been at it for 2 ½ years. This was another gold nugget that I still treasure. Likewise, I’m also able to use better technique, even doing the exercises on the same dog as one of my students, because I’ve practiced so very much over the years. It’s important for students to see what is possible so they can keep working on their form and technique.

An example of this was a Chow Chow I finished working with a couple of weeks ago. The puppy was about 4 months old when we started. This was the first dog for these dog owners. At first, this pup was indifferent to training, disliked being handled, wouldn’t take treats, would lunge at birds or some strangers, didn’t want to walk up or down stairs (the owners lived on the 2nd floor), and pretty much only wanted to do what she wanted to do. If you tried to make her do anything, she’d lunge at you again and again and try and bite. The wife was better able to handle her, but the dog didn’t want the husband or me to touch her much, even when you tried to pet her or put on a leash. She bit the groomer on her first appointment. There were a lot of small details we had to do, beyond what is normally included in training most dogs, to make any progress. At first, progress was very slow. The good news was that the owners trusted me, so that allowed me to do what was necessary. Results required patience, building trust, building a relationship with all of us, keeping the lessons interesting, working a lot in public to socialize her and acclimate her to all the normal things in life. The owners recently had a job transfer to another state. We all felt very good where things were on their last lesson. They could have strangers over to their home, they could visit other people’s homes even if they had dogs, they could walk her in public, do stairs, handle her, she came to like being petted, could put on her leash and collar, could groom her, she became a much more eager worker, and would do the basic commands including a Sit or Down or Come from up to about 40 yards distance in public. I had to use many of my dog training “tools” to get her to that point. It wasn’t about using pain and fear either, in fact, that would have made her completely incorrigible. Instead we used a big basket of small interventions, techniques and patient work to draw all of that out of her. She’s a good dog, but she needed the right owners and the right approach to make her into a very nice family member.

You can learn a lot of BJJ moves from a book or video, but you can’t really learn the true BJJ way without a good personal instructor in a good BJJ school. A lot of what you need to know isn’t ever going to be in a book. For example, you need to experience being a novice, getting tapped out again and again. You need to learn what it’s like to maybe get a black eye or sore elbow. You have to learn the timing to anticipate what the other guy is attempting, and to learn to use subterfuge to make the other guy think you’re going one way when really you are luring him into a trap. You need to hear the stories of how to defend yourself from guys who got in real street fights. You need to learn how to do 3 and 4 hour workouts when you are going so hard you want to throw up or maybe came in with a migraine. Similarly, you can’t learn how to unravel any somewhat tricky behavior or obedience problem with a dog just by thinking you can punish or yell at a dog, or by what you saw on TV or in a book. There are things that have taken me decades to figure out, some as a result of direct learning from others, and some as a result of what I call osmosis where it sinks in after years of practice and puzzling things out.

And here’s the deal, there isn’t anyone who knows it all. Regardless of their marketing or reputation or years of experience, there is way more to know than what you can figure out in your lifetime. But you have to be willing to keep learning to make progress. If all you do is the same things you did 20 years ago, then what you are doing is probably out of date and not as effective as you think. The hardest thing to do in dog training is to see what is really going on instead of what you think is going on. Only when you get further into the dog training journey do you build up those small details which can make big results. That’s why it is hard to explain at first, over email, what I’m going to do with a dog that I’ve never met and haven’t spent time getting more background on the owners. There isn’t ever a one size fits all perfect solution for any dog or situation. Every home is different and after gathering enough information then it is possible to start unraveling the problems, one lesson at a time. Generally, I might have a game plan, Plan A, but then refinements can become necessary if we encounter roadblocks.

So, I’ve shared a couple of my hard earned gold nuggets with you today. It might not seem that way right now, but the more you ponder their value and use, the better your results will be.

Intro Video