Thursday, August 06, 2015

6 Reasons that Dog Training Is Like Acting

Unknown dog on Mt. Hood
I have, arguably, been studying acting since I was 4. During a bravura performance as the classic character, The Wronged Child, I passed a mirror on the way to be comforted by my father and took a moment to use it to check out my crying technique. Rookie mistake. I got better, though, went to a prestigious drama school, built my own performances, and continue to learn by doing as often as possible. Here, look at my recent videos!

I began studying dog training 40 years later. There, too, I have made some rookie mistakes. In order to improve as quickly as possible I'm reading, watching, and thinking about the subject almost all the time. I spend countless brain-hours rethinking the very best analogies and explanations for any dog training-related conversation I've had.

Last week while perambulating my pooch Chekhov popped into my head. It happens. The more we walked the more I was able to flesh out the idea that, in many respects, dog training bears a strong resemblance to acting!

By the time we got home I had 6 examples.

Bu in Chewing Heaven
1. You Cannot Perform A Negative - In acting you must be clear about your "action" in a scene. Your action is what you want out of that moment on stage. It was always one of the most difficult things for me to articulate* when I was in a class because your action cannot be negative.

For example, you can't work with, "I don't want to leave the family estate." You can work with, "I want to stay here." Not wanting to leave some place isn't active. It doesn't tell you what to do. Staying  gives you options. You can sit down, you can hide, you can point a gun at the people trying to move you just to name a few.

One of the dog training questions I've been fielding a lot lately is how to most effectively tell a dog no. Here's the thing, dogs don't speak English. They don't have any concept of what any word means until we teach it to them. No is a tough concept to teach under ideal conditions and damn near impossible when you tell your furry ESL student NO! when they're on the couch, greeting someone at the door, chewing on something, or walking. How can they possibly know that NO! means get off the furniture, don't jump on granny, that's my antique table, and don't walk so fast.

It's so much clearer if you teach them, one thing at a time, what you'd prefer that they do and pay them handsomely for doing so. I work on polite greetings with almost every client. We reward their dogs for sitting (or at least standing with 4 on the floor) when a guest arrives. We never have to use NO! In fact, it only confuses things.

Which brings me to the next important similarity.

Ed's Rocking Recall
2. Be Interesting - There's a game called Audition that improv instructors enjoy. Half the class plays the audience and the other half spreads out on stage. At the teacher's signal everyone on stage has X minutes to BE INTERESTING and at the end the audience reports who they paid the most attention to.

The anecdote from my college days is about a Grecian God of a classmate who stood stage center among his screaming and cavorting counterparts and slowly, silently took off all his clothes. He won the game.

Dogs are a tough audience. They take in a lot more information than humans generally do. They have more scent receptors in their noses and keener hearing so when giving their attention they have a lot more choices of targets than we do. This means that every time we need our dog's attention we're participating in a cut-throat game of Audition. We have to know our audience (he likes hot dogs, she likes a high squeaky voice, the little one only comes over if I stand still) and play to their desires.

While I don't suggest taking all your clothes off in the dog park I can tell you that having some high value treats and not being afraid to look and sound a little silly will be more likely to catch your hound's attention than following them around getting angrier and angrier. Remember, your best human friend wouldn't be very likely to sit next to you if you were acting so grouchy either.

Dogs Love It When Batch Visits
3. Do Something - In acting your Activity is different from your Action. An activity is whatever you're physically doing at the time. Chekhov is full of these. His characters are always dealing games of solitaire, pouring tea from the samovar, or packing enormous trunks with all their worldly possessions. This is because real people are doing things most of the time.

Dogs need to do stuff, too. Sure, they like several more naps than I could schedule in a day but between naps they want to get physically and mentally tired so the next nap will be satisfying. I tell you what, if you don't give your dog an activity they'll find one on their own and it might be something you don't like very much.

If you have the time, money and interest this could mean taking up a hobby with your dog. You might find that you both like agility or coursing or or nose games or even search and rescue. When they're home alone they could have a kong to chew on or toys to play with. It doesn't have to be elaborate, though.

For instance, my dog has a few store bought food puzzles but lately I've been making some for him. They aren't complicated at all. I'm saving up toilet paper rolls and egg cartons and little things like that to hide treats in. I close them up, maybe stuff a little paper in there to make it trickier, and let him have at it. He's a pretty delicate puzzle solver, he'd rather figure out how to open something than tear it apart to get inside fast so he gets a lot of enjoyment out of one little toilet paper roll and I get a dog who is dialed down enough that we can enjoy each other. Also my garbage isn't all over the kitchen.

Aunt Rena's Favorite Dinner Companion
4. Choose the Right Outfit - Stella Adler's acting method has you build your character from the outside in. My mentor, whose method was similar, found that if she put on the right shoes for the character she'd understand how the character walked and from there much of her acting work flowed easily.

Polite leash walking is near the top of most dog handlers' list of desired behaviors. There are so many choices of equipment to bridge the gap between dog and leash - back clip harness, front clip harness, flat collar, martingale collar, choke chain, prong collar. The one you choose can have a big impact on your dog's character choices while you're walking.

Personally, I prefer a front clip harness. Most dogs love to walk. Moving forward is the goal so pulling forward is self-rewarding and fun! With a front clip harness when the dog pulls forward they are urged back by the connection to the leash so it's less rewarding and they are less likely to pull.

Did you see what I said there? Less likely. Even the most perfect costume doesn't do the acting for you. You have to take the information those ruby slippers give you and build on it. Same for any piece of dog walking equipment. You need to seize the moments where your dog isn't pulling to insert some training and make walking next to you more rewarding than pulling ahead.

Sadie Opens Her Birthday Present
5. Dress the Set Carefully - I rarely see a big time NYC show more than once. It's so expensive and there's so much to see that I usually opt to see something new. I made an exception in the case of Fun Home. A friend urged me to see it with him at The Public and it was so moving and thought-provoking and downright beautiful that I lit a fire under a couple of other friends so we could see it when it moved to Circle in the Square.

The move involved changing from a proscenium theatre to one that was three quarter round. You might think that would be more of a technical problem, just making sure everyone in the audience can see properly, than anything else but it turned out to be much more than that. I found the play to be more emotional and clearer about those emotions in the new setting. It was a beautiful and elegant set in the first incarnation. It was another character, propelling the show to greater heights, in the second.

But my dog doesn't perform, you're saying. I know. Except that all the training we do with dogs is tricks to them and your home, your neighborhood, your car, your local park are their theaters. In order to get their best show we need to set the scene for their success. Have a dog who chews shoes? Put your shoes away and give her lots of practice chewing on legal items like kongs and marrow bones. Have a dog who lifts his leg when he gets startled? Maybe a belly band or some crate training will protect your furniture. Have a dog who is still working on his polite greetings? Have him on a leash when grandma arrives for Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of work to redecorate your house from a canine perspective. I've even heard people who were offended that they were supposed to change the way they live for a lowly dog. The way I see it, if you're constantly buying new shoes or cleaning up pee or apologizing to your grandmother you've already changed your life so why not change it for the better instead?

Bobby Catches Air
6. How Do I Get To Broadway? - A young man is wandering the New York streets consulting a map and looking confused. He approaches an older man sitting on a bench and asks, "Excuse me, sir? How do I get to Broadway?"

The older man replies dryly, "Practice, practice, practice."

It's true for actors, for musicians, for athletes, for actuaries, for dogs, and even for the people who train them. We all do better when we practice even if it's only a few minutes a day.

I might modify the advice just a little and urge you to practice well. If you're not reaching your goals consult a book, a knowledgeable friend, or a qualified trainer (preferably progressive).  Sure you can do it yourself but often a little change in perspective can open up a lesson and move you closer to success.

Just the other day I met a new dog who I'd been told knew loads of tricks. I had just breezed into the room and immediately wanted to play with him. I didn't take any time to set myself up I just barreled on over to the guy, grabbed some treats out of my pack, and asked him for a down. Nothing. I waited. Nothing. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, a colleague  said, "Put your treats behind your back!"

Now, I knew that. It's standard operating procedure. In the heat of the moment I blew it. Having a little help to practice well gave me a jump start into a fun, productive session with this fabulous dog.

When I commit to something, whether it's a training goal or an acting goal or something else, I try to log at least 15 minutes per day on it. That may not seem like much but it adds up. If you can put even 15 minutes a day into training with your dog I bet you'll both be more comfortable than you were before.

Send me a photo when you collect your first Oscar, will you?

*Much gratitude to Todd Van Voris, a marvelous actor and friend, for talking me through this one to get the acting terminology right. 


  1. i love everything about this. you're the smartest and the bestest

  2. Love this post! I love to act and love dogs so it is right up my alley. Great writing, as usual.