“Get ready for a disaster,” I jokingly said as I prepared to pull my dog out of the car. 

I was attempting to teach my lab, Never, some manners…

The dog that I’ve admittedly slacked on training because she was so much easier than my Malinois. 

I never minded that she was a bit of a heathen, and could regularly be found gut punching the people she loved and begging relentlessly for them to give her food (which they always did).

She was cute, and easy, and as a result, we let a lot slide. 

But now, I had enrolled her in a workshop, so it was time to teach her the basics so she didn’t completely embarrass me in public. 

I began at a local park. 

It was the middle of the day, and it was quiet…

Not much going on given it was a work day, and the kids were all in school. 

Some distractions were strategically staged in the environment – a couple of Never’s favorite people, and a stranger or two were prepared to steal her focus, having been given strict instructions to ignore her pleas for their attention.

She emerged from the car and immediately yanked to the end of her leash to greet her friends. 

I stood quietly. 

She pulled harder and began to bark, getting frustrated that the world was ignoring her antics. (I taught her to jump and bark to get what she wants – it’s a technique I use for my competitive obedience training – don’t ask, and don’t try this at home…just know that she was doing what she had learned). 

I didn’t make a move. 

Soon, realizing her attempts weren’t having the desired effect, she turned to look my way. 

“Yip!” I exclaimed…capturing the shift in focus with a word she knows well – one that says “that’s exactly what I want!”. 

I followed my mark with a piece of food to pay her for a job well done.

I had her focus now. And she offered me a down, earning another “Yip!” and another piece of food. 

I had said nothing. No cues. No encouragement.

And I did nothing. No lures. No patting of my leg, or feeble attempts at getting her attention. 

I just stood quietly, and waited for her to remember I existed. 

We repeated the exercise, moving closer to the people, starting with the strangers and graduating to the people she knew and loved like crazy.

Sometimes she lost focus, wanting desperately to say hello, but whenever she did, I got quiet, said nothing, and waited. 

Within moments, she always shifted gears and turned her focus back to me, realizing her antics were getting her nowhere, and thinking about alternative solutions to get what she wanted. 

By the end of the session, she wasn’t pulling out to the people at all…

No more barking…

No more jumping wildly in the air…

No more yanking on the leash. 

She was with me. And the people in the environment were just background noise. 

Listen, our problems weren’t solved in that single session. 

We’ve still got work to do. 

But in a short amount of time, we were able to make big progress. In fact, just two days later, we took our training to a local hardware store where she offered a quiet down stay unprompted as I chatted with some shoppers.

So how did I do it? 

How did I take a barking, pulling, leaping wildly through the air heathen and turn the behavior into a calm, quiet down stay in record time? 

I’ll let you in on a little secret…

I didn’t work miracles…or perform some feat of magic.

And I’m definitely no dog training genius…

I don’t have some secret methods that transform behavior in a hot second.

I simply raised this particular dog to problem solve. 

And as a result, when things don’t work, she knows she’s got to find a solution that does. 

Listen, all too often, we steal our dog’s opportunities to think for themselves…

In training and in life, we are there…

Helping…

Luring….

Using our leash….

Or our body language…

Using our words…

To guide our dog to the right solution. 

To show them what to do. 

To prevent them from making mistakes. 

And check it out….

I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m not saying that we should never help them. 

But if we’re always showing our dog what to do…

Giving them instructions…

Controlling their interactions with people…

With other dogs…

And with the world….

We are, in essence robbing them of their ability to think on their own.

And here’s the crazy thing…

Could I have approached any dog with the same technique as I did with my lab? 

Could I have thrown them to the wolves, and waited for them to find a better solution than barking and being foolish? 

Probably not.

(Well, I could…but it would likely be an exercise in frustration for us both.)

But I was able to with my lab. And I was able to shift her behavior in record time, all because I’ve raised her to be a problem solver. 

I’ve taught her how to find solutions on her own…

How to think through problems….

And how to make things happen without my guidance or support. 

And I’ve focused on creating an environment where making those good choices is easy…

So practicing the bad stuff is minimal and as a result, not very rewarding.

I’m reminded of a quote by prize winning author and biochemist, Roger Lewin…

The quote is about children, but I think it applies to our dogs as well…

Lewin says, “Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” 

Our dogs are smarter than we like to give them credit for. 

So maybe, rather than giving them commands, rules and instructions to remember, it’s time to experiment with giving them problems to solve. 

Time to cultivate their ability to think on their own…

And time to empower them to make good choices, rather than making all of the choices ourselves.

If you want to start empowering your dog to problem solve, but aren’t sure where to start, click here for a simple exercise to build engagement while teaching crucial problem solving skills.


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    2 replies to "From Disaster to Down-Stay: The importance of empowerment in dog training"

    • Kee

      Really good article. Also justifies ‘waiting’ for those who have been in a “quick’ environment.

      I do think that, for the highly intelligent breeds/mixes (e.g. Border Collie/blends), learning to “problem solve” processes in their brains faster than the more “deep”, (e.g. Great Danes). This underscores the for us to learn how to calmly wait 😄

    • Kee

      Sorry – “deep” should be “derp”

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