We’re in the midst of puppy camp right now with Sophie, the Westie puppy who joined us in January. We spend an hour a week learning the basics of civilized behavior—sit, stay, down, and how to control yourself when approached by another creature. The class consists of fifteen dogs of various breeds and sizes, and the head instructor has the demeanor of a high school coach working with a team of new recruits. She keeps both the over-stimulated puppies and anxious owners well in line.
“Ok, people, show me your poop clean-up bags. Hold ‘em high. There is no such thing as the poop fairy around here.”
One of the first things we learn is to use a marking word when our dog exhibits an appropriate and desired behavior. The word is “Yes!” spoken in a firm and exuberant manner. We practice saying it in unison as the instructor tosses a string cheese stick (highly prized treat) in the air and we all shout “Yes!” at the exact moment it hits the floor. Precise timing of the marking word is essential in teaching the puppy a new behavior. As each new command is taught, a correct response from the dog is followed immediately by “Yes!” and a food treat. The idea is for the owners to establish themselves as the leader of the pack but always through positive and encouraging praise, not by angry and punitive words.
I couldn’t help but think how we have all had to learn new commands in the last year. Stay home, mask up, quarantine, social distance, lock down. Behaviors for which we previously had no more understanding or context than a three-month old puppy being told to sit and stay. Maybe we needed a marking word to get us to do what we were supposed to or maybe we needed more high value treats to reward us when we complied, although the reward of not getting sick or dying is pretty high value. It seems like many of us were easily distracted—barking at others, pulling on our leashes, and trying to establish dominance in the pack.
At the end of the six-week session, dogs and their owners must demonstrate a number of basic skills in order for the dog to be designated an “American Kennel Club Star Puppy.” It requires cooperation and practice and working together as a team. Learning to be good human and canine citizens involves constant repetition of the marking word and lots of treats and lots of hugs. We could all take a lesson from the dog trainers.