Zen and the art of dog training

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 22 September 2017

Hercules – the beloved star of Toyota's 'bugger' ads – was one of animal behaviour consultant Mark Vette's dogs.

Although Vette is in demand around the world for ads and movies, he mostly works with "problem" dogs and rescue dogs.

He talks about choosing a dog, puppy training and addressing behaviour problems in his new book Dog Zen.

The human-dog bond goes back 40,000 years, Vette says.

"When we were hunter-gatherers the wolves started to hang around our tribal settlements and follow us and eat our faeces and our waste. Slowly they self-domesticated and in 10,000 years they became the village and priory dogs."

Over time they re-oriented towards humans and away from the wolf pack, even though the everyday dog of today is still 99.96 percent wolf, he says.

"They've learnt to read our gestures and look into our eyes – a wolf would never look you in the eyes. A dog looks into your eyes for direction and they read our gestures and postures.

"Dogs are 99 percent postural communicators and your anxiety and tension is reflected directly in your posture all the time."

Dogs live in an olfactory world and their sense of smell is 2 million times better than ours, he says.

"They can smell your pheromones, they can smell when you're scared, when you're overexcited, whether you've made love this morning or whether you have breakfast all over your face."

When it comes to dog behaviour, prevention is always better than cure, Vette says.

"If you do the right thing in that 2-4 month formative period you can have solid, strong bond with it."

But if they've been doing a certain behaviour for months or years it becomes 'hardwired'.

If you want or need to change a behaviour, you need to go back to basics by getting the dog into a 'leaning state' then repeatedly "doing the right thing at the right time", Vette says.

The best way to get a dog into a learning state is by training them with a clicker, which acts as a 'switch' that switches the dog into a learning state in which they view you as the mentor.

"If I ask the dog to sit, when its bottom hits the ground, dead on that point where its bottom hits the ground I click – and very quickly the dog 'clicks' to that because I'm going to give it a food reward."

Jumping up is a soliciting/appeasement behaviour, Vette says.

"What the dog is doing is trying to get up to your jowls … We should be on four feet, in their terms. Our mouths are way up high and they want to get in and lick the jowls to get you to regurgitate food."

With clicker training, you can click and reward four feet on the ground.

If your dog is aggressive, i.e.it hasn't learnt to meet and greet other dogs and/or people in the formative period, again the clicker is the way to go - get the dog into a learning state then systematically apply the principles of meet and greet, Vette says.

Even though a dog can feel like your kid and you can love them like a kid, you need to understand their needs and ways of communication are very different to ours, he says.

And don't forget how much they can teach in return.

"The dog is the last semblance of nature for a lot of people … and the Zen part of this book is about getting in touch with your animal nature."