My son absolutely hated his first class. His body was stiff as he clung to my arms, neck and whatever else he could get a hold of. He screamed out “dada!” even though I was right there – as someone who loves him, every time he said “dada” what I heard was “Dada, why are you doing this to me!? I thought you loved me!?” He cried the whole duration of the 30 minute class and it wasn’t a matter of whether he would stop or not, it was just a matter of how hard he would scream and cry at any particular moment.
All around me I saw frustrated parents going through the same thing – often times stopping whatever baby maneuver we were doing to hold or console their child or just to get a break from the screaming.
As a parent, swim class sounds like a fun idea, but when you get there and you see what a pool does to these babies, it can end up being one of the hardest experiences of your life.
The second class came and my wife and I were taking bets as to when Hugo would start crying – in the pool? Parking at the facility? Maybe even when we started putting his swim clothes on?
Turns out it was in the pool again. The first few minutes were the same as the first class. Until we got to an activity called “blast offs.” This is where you kick off against the side of the pool and glide through the water. It was fun. Amazingly, Hugo smiled. This is the first time he had smiled in a pool. And for the remainder of that class, he stayed happy.
By the third class it was all smiles from baby Hugo as he became the best in the class. He would look around at babies still crying with a puzzled look on his face – seemingly curious why the other babies weren’t having so much gliding through the water with their families. The days of extreme stress in the pool were something he didn’t even remember.
It was then that I started to think back to all the dog training classes and lessons I had where dogs panicked in a room of other dogs – barking, lunging, and making a scene. As a trainer, you get used to seeing this and navigating this space with various dogs. But I always focus on the struggling owner – ready to walk out of the class or the situation, sweating, embarrassed. The way the owner handles these moments will make one of the biggest imprints they will make on their dog’s future. It’s always a little bit more difficult with your own dog, because you’re emotionally invested. Believe me – I get that.
There’s an idea that’s popular in dog training right now that your dog should always be comfortable in the training process. And as with all things in dog training, there is the opposite idea where dogs must be put through stressful situations, because like humans, dogs that can’t handle any stress more than likely can’t handle the real world. To me, the whole art of training dogs, or even coaching humans, is understanding the being in front of you and knowing when you push through and knowing when you back off. Making the wrong decisions in these moments can be detrimental to your relationship and your dog’s future.
Several years ago, the famous dog trainer Cesar Millan came under a lot of scrutiny for a technique called “flooding.” It is a common technique of his, but the example that came under fire was a dog he was working with had trouble being on tile floors. The dog would completely shut down when faced with the concept of a smooth surface to stand on. As you might imagine, this made life difficult for the dog and the owner. There are a few approaches you could take to solving such a problem that break into two camps – gradual or quick.
A gradual plan to help the dog overcome his fear of floors would be to lure him on with food when he was ready. Maybe feed him only on tile floors. Maybe help him take one step on and then right back off to a celebration of food and praise (eventually building this up to two steps on and so on). There is no guarantee that any of these would work or a timeframe which you would expect them to work. However, it is a very gentle approach and is thus appealing to many trainers and dog lovers.
Cesar went with the quick approach (important to note that it makes more drama for TV). He put a leash on the dog and got a running start towards the tile floor and after an attempt or two got the dog on the floor. The dog, once realizing he was on a slick floor, had his swim class moment and panicked – scratching his paws, drooling, etc. It is a hard process to watch because the animal genuinely believes that they are in great danger. All Cesar did was stand there calmly and kept the dog from running away, propped him up once or twice, and kept moving him forward – he might say he was offering “calm-assertive” energy to help the dog navigate this new terrain.
This dog overcame his avoidance behavior quickly and became a dog that Cesar would point to for years showing that his methods, while uncomfortable in the short term, pay off big in the long term.
As I said earlier – knowing when to push and when to back off is the true art of dog training. It appears to me that it is probably going to end up being the art of raising a child too.