SMILE… to Bring out Any Dog’s Best
By Lynne Swanson, DVM
Would you like your dogs to be calmer, more relaxed and more responsive? Would you like to set them up for success in groups? And could your days use a few extra smiles? If the answer to all three questions is “Yes!”, consider the Smile Training approach.
Calmness and relaxation are recognized as good behavioral choices and, along with other desired behaviors, they are rewarded with sincere, relaxed, up–to–our–eyes, well–timed smiles. What…no dog biscuits? No “Good dogs?” No clicker clicks? That’s right…smiles, ninety–five percent of the time.
Smile training for dogs (and for us) is naturally positive. If the concept is new to you, here are its basic tenets, applicable to dogs in groups and as individuals:
- Follows two Golden Rules.
Golden Rule #1: Reward what you want.
Golden Rule #2: Stop rewarding what you don’t want!
- Promotes calmness and relaxation. It rewards not just desired behaviors (e.g.: sit, down, stay, move away from the gate, leave that other dog alone…), but also the state of mind we desire (relaxed) and the energy we desire (calm). An understanding of energy—basic levels of it, how to direct it to our advantage, what to do with too much of it and how to recognize different types—is absolutely vital if you wish to get the best from any dog. Knowing how to engage and direct him, how to match your response to his behavior, and how to bring out his best in groups all require an understanding of energy. Identifying the energy level and state of mind underlying our dogs’ behaviors allows us to address the problems involved and not just the symptoms.
- Promotes focus. We’re not treat–meanies (yes, we do offer them in particular circumstances.) It’s just that we know when a dog anticipates a treat, his focus drifts to the treat and his energy level rises. When he is rewarded with well–timed, genuine, up–to–our–eyes smiles, his focus is on us and his energy remains calm. So offer your dogs a relaxed smile when they are quiet, and you will get more quiet behavior. Smile at them when they relax if you want them to be more relaxed. Smile at them when you are pleased with what they are doing to get the dogs you want!
- Promotes good “follow–ship.” It is always less stressful for dogs to be the followers of calm, clear, confident and consistent decision–makers than it is for them to be the decision–makers (especially when they may not make the best of decisions). Most dogs are followers by nature. In any situation, given a calm and confident decision–maker who provides for their needs, they will gladly follow.
- Builds teams. A dog’s identity in any group is inherently flexible, but it is important to him, just as family and friendships are important to us. It isn’t a matter of “alpha” and “beta” or similar labels. In reality, most dogs are born to fit into and thrive in the middle of their group, like birds in a flock or players on a football team. There is the spirit of unity, of security, of togetherness, and of ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction. This is an incredibly practical concept that goes well beyond playgroups (since playgroups reflect location more than identity). Team–building can be used to introduce dogs, address inter–dog aggression, build confidence in insecure dogs, and exercise both mind and body.
- Is canine–intuitive. Taking a more canine–centric than human-centric approach, Smile training honors the way dogs think and the way they communicate with each other. Body language is really the name of the game. Dogs express themselves clearly through their posture, positions, movement and energy. They read our posture and the positions we take, plus how we use movement and the energy we project…and they interpret them in the unique context of their species. With dogs, it is not so much what you say but how you say it.
- Uses good routines. Routines and small rituals are important to dogs, and in almost any environment, good ones can help them thrive while problematic ones set them up for stress and failure. Spending a little extra time up front to establish thoughtful routines saves time and prevents issues later, in a positive and very practical way, in facilities as well as in households. How do you know when a dog’s behavior reflects a routine or a ritual, either his or your own? A good hint is when you describe him as “always” doing something, for better or worse, in a particular manner. Changing behaviors you don’t want into behaviors you love can be easy when you change bad routines into better ones.
- Will get you moving. Dogs are movers by nature. They move to get from Point A to Point B. They move forward and backward and side–by–side to communicate with their peers. And they readily get moving, to move on to better things psychologically. Here they can teach our species a lot!
- Works moment–by–moment. (No lesson plans needed.) Moment to moment is how you practice Smile training, not simply at a set time on a given day in a given environment. It will help you to get your timing right, and it will help you move on when bumps in the road occur (everyone experiences them.) You might even start to view certain problems as challenges you are ready to surpass.
- Complements other training and dog–handling methods. The 5 “C’s” of Smile training (calmness, clarity, canine–intuitive communication, confidence and consistency) elevate everything we do with our dogs, especially in groups where our interaction is observed by other dogs.
- Honors nature. A dog’s behavior reflects both nature and nurture. When our nurturing allows him to express talents linked to his DNA, we satisfy him psychologically and build stronger bonds.
- Helps to address (and prevent) common behavioral issues. Are you dealing with hyperactivity, stranger–reactivity, resource–guarding, anxiety, barking, aggression or submissive urination (to name a few common issues)? Following Golden Rules #1 and #2; becoming more canine–intuitive in your postures, positions, movement and energy; using thoughtful movement to build teams, and learning how to offer well–timed smiles to reinforce calmness and relaxation.
- Is good for you! Can your days use a few more smiles? How about some more laughter? A little light–hearted dancing? How about some good old–fashioned (but never out of style) hand–wags and butt–wiggles?
When you put all of these concepts together and incorporate them into your work with dogs, it is easy to bring out their best and your best! Here is an example of a Smile Training concept being used in a real–life situation:
Before Jenna brings her 10–month–old Goldendoodle, Sassy, to a new daycare, the facility has her fill out an online questionnaire that asks about Sassy’s natural energy level, socialization and training. From this, the staff can see that Sassy needs lots of mindful exercise and a few lessons in follow–ship, and Jenna could use a few tips about bringing out her calm and relaxed best.
To set Jenna and Sassy up for success and to help Sassy see that this daycare puts a premium on calm and relaxed behavior from day one/minute one, Jenna is instructed to call the desk when she first arrives. Her instructions are to then take Sassy to a marked area to relieve herself, the better to put the dog in the frame of mind to walk nicely on a shortened leash at her owner’s side around the parking lot until they are joined by staff member, Matt.
When Matt arrives, Jenna (having been instructed to do so) doesn’t stop walking to talk. Rather, she allows Matt to join her and Sassy on their walk, aligned side–by–side. From Sassy’s perspective, Jenna has invited soft–spoken Matt to be on their team. Jenna has also provided her with a little time to sniff Matt from a few feet away while walking, something she appreciates much more than new people reaching for her using excited chatter.
Matt and Jenna walk around the parking lot, talking softly. Sassy quickly becomes comfortable with her new surroundings, and everyone around her can smile. This further relaxes her, and it encourages her to walk politely (as opposed to pulling Jenna around).
At Matt’s direction, Jenna passes Sassy’s leash to him and they take one more pass around the parking lot. Matt then leads Sassy into the building with Jenna holding the door, so Sassy has no need to worry about it clipping her heels. In a calm and relaxed state of mind, Sassy is led to the back of the building, and the dogs there accept her arrival in an equally calm and relaxed manner.
Contrast this welcoming routine with one where an exasperated owner is dragged from her car and through the door of a facility by her dog, only to be greeted by animated staff reaching for leashes. That scenario sends a completely different message to dogs, and it can set some up for stress, or even for failure when all this added excitement triggers excited responses in other dogs.
Embrace your canine learning curve! To learn more about seeing things through your dogs’ eyes, visit www.givesmiles.us.
Lynne Swanson, DVM is the author of “Learning DOG” and “SMILE! and other practical life lessons your dogs can teach you (while you are training them).” Together with her Doberman partner, Hiker, she enjoys traveling the U.S. and Canada to speak at conferences and volunteer with the not-for-profit SMILE! Project. This project provides training for shelter, rescue, boarding, training and veterinary personnel (in groups of 30 or more, often networking together), and it raises funds to support dog rescue and the SMILE! pet–parenting library initiative. For more information, visit www.givesmiles.us or call Jan at 252 422 0943.