UNDERSTANDING MIRRORING AND HOW IT AFFECTS OUR DOG TRAINING
We have probably all heard of the use of mirroring to promote success in business dealings. It is a tool used the world over. However, after teaching people and dogs for so many years I have consistently found that the power of mirroring is not something that is given consideration by most dog trainers. In fact, for the most part, they are not even aware of it!
Whether you are a person inadvertently mimicking their dog’s energy or a dog mirroring their person’s energy, the impact on the dog’s behavior is, in my opinion, immense. In fact, it is one of my favorite concepts. It is something that I give a lot of weight to in my online classes, seminars and everyday teaching. Oftentimes, if trainers are aware of mirroring, it is only on a subconscious level. When they grasp the enormity of how mirroring has been effecting all of their training, it can be a huge revelation and completely change their approach to training.
The old saying “The devil is in the details” is a truism here. It is often that a small adjustment to your attitude can have a huge effect on your dog training.
An example that happened recently was: A client with a small Chihuahua mix was taking a lesson with me because the dog is a seemingly timid little thing. Without thinking much about it, she was being careful with how she handed him treats, careful with her play and careful being handsy with him to encourage play. Everything was subtly careful.
As they worked through the drill, the dog put forth a decent effort and even though she was frequently rewarding him, having fun and really doing a nice job with her dog training, the little details; the careful treat delivery and her soft manner were keeping and even fostering the dog’s timid demeanor.
So I went over to them, “Let me give it a shot.” The little dog looked at me and I immediately said “Good boy!!!” (for giving me attention) and delivered a bunch of little treats very quickly one at a time. Delivered with absolutely no allowance for his apparent timidity, firing them in, fast and fun. “Are you ready??!!!” I said in an excited way, revving him up and getting him jazzed by getting in a play crouch and creating some intensity by stiffening my body language as if I was about to leave the start line of a 100 yard sprint (those of you who know me are laughing at this point because no way am I doing a 100 yard sprint ) :-).
At that point he had no idea what was going to happen, but I could see his excitement start to build. I gave him a couple play taps (not hard, I didn’t want to send him flying, easy to do when they weigh 6 pounds), but with vigor and energy. Did he run in fear? Scared of this crazy lady? Nope. Actually he started wagging his tail and then went into a happy blast of zoomies, then powered back to me for treats. Very cool!!
The student’s reply, “What the……Holy Moly!????” 🙂
Now I am not saying you should go right to 10 with a dog that is timid, but the first thing you should never do is be timid back . Never!!! Kiss of death, right there. When you are careful with a careful dog you are supporting their belief that there is something to be careful about. That is the last thing you want to do.
You can pull punches while being dynamic and fun, but you want to be dynamic and fun!!! I usually blow off the dog’s fear, pretending it isn’t there and just get on with the having fun part.
Now, to qualify, I am not going to rush in and get crazy with a dog that has a difficulty, is a rescue and has had a history of abuse or a similar situation. I am going to have a plan of attack and be thoughtful and methodical about my approach, but I am still going to be very careful not to fall into the rhythm of that dog’s energy. I am going to be confident and fun and convince the dog that life is awesome!
I will tell you that I did almost the same thing the next evening in class with a toy fox terrier, also with a fear history, and guess what? Yup pretty much the exact same reaction. Rather than being afraid of my big talk and dynamic treat delivery, she loved it and came back for more! This stuff works and is very effective!
I believe my background in acting and voice-overs has given me a sensitivity to the effectiveness of dynamic energy and vocal tones in dog training. I think that being so aware of that early training has been one of the keys to my specialty, building drive.
To build on this, one of the training concepts that I emphasize in everything I do is the effectiveness (in a bad way) of the “sweetie pie” voice. The use of the “sweetie pie” voice when rewarding your dog is a huge problem when you are trying to create great drive and focus. Unfortunately, it is most people’s “go to” vocal tone when they are rewarding their dog.
Sweet talk and caresses are super great when you are snuggling on the couch with your pup, but they truly kick your butt when you are trying to train your dog.
When you are rewarding your dog for a great behavior and you say something like, “Good boy, what a good job,” in a soothing, nurturing tone, and then to cap it off you deliver your rewards in a serene and deliberate way, you are basically giving the dog calming signals. Effectively sending most of the energy you had built during the exercise, right into the toilet. Not a great place for it to be ;-).
If, however, your dog gives you a behavior and you reward them with a fun voice and dynamic energy, “Great job!! What a good fella!!, Superstar!!!” and then fire those rewards at them in a fast and fun way, you will be creating a feeling of excitement which your dog will respond to, mirroring your enthusiasm.
When you are calm, you influence them to be calm, when you are jazzed up, it will be infectious and they will get jazzed up!! Your reward delivery and the manner you use to speak to your dog can take a treat from a level 4 on the 1-10 scale to a 10!
Please note that in order to be exciting to your dog, you do not have to be loud. It doesn’t matter if you whisper as long as that whisper is super fun!!! You can experiment and play around to find whatever tone your dog responds to best. You can create as much excitement with a whisper as a shout.
Yes, there are those dogs that come wired and are crazed to work, but whether the dog is placid, timid or hyper, it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls of mirroring and the benefits, so you can use them to your advantage. With a high dog, remaining cool and confident rather than feeding into the dog’s frenetic energy can go a long way towards creating controlled behaviors you want without losing any of the drive you want.
Although I could give you examples of this all day long I will just hit you with one more, toy play.
Oftentimes, when trying to build toy drive, a student will get their dog on the toy and then tug, but they will tug carefully. You can see they are not really going for it because they are afraid the dog won’t maintain their grip. Basically, they think if they tug too energetically the dog will let go. Although that may seem very logical it is that exact thought that will likely keep the dog from ever engaging in vigorous play.
When you play with your dog carefully, they will be careful right back. They are not going to play hard when you are not. Mirroring.
To solve the play problem I’ll have them use a number of tools, but at the core, the trainer’s intensity and commitment to the game will have the biggest impact.
Another qualification :-): This does not mean that you need to play so aggressively that you rip their neck off. There are techniques for creating great play. You can look and play dynamically without being too rough, but in a way that the dog believes you are truly invested in the play!
As you go out to train your dog in the future, take a step back and see if you have been sucked into the mirroring vortex without being aware of it. If so, change things up and use the concept of mirroring for good not evil!
Stacy Winkler is an agility trainer in Southern California.
She teaches online classes at: www.stacywinkler.com
And can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook under Stacy Leah Winkler
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