In The Zone

Have you ever exited the highway and entered a curve that changes the direction you were heading? A well designed curve requires very little steering. Once you adjust for it there are no sharp changes that require you to make abrupt movements of the steering wheel, you hold your position and wind along with the curve.

In the industry of outdoor recreation improvements are always being made to equipment so that man water skiingthe energy required to use it decreases. Downhill skis are shorter and shaped so that minor shifts in weight will cause them to carve out a turn. A huge improvement compared to the cumbersome wooden skis you see mounted as decoration on old barns or straight fiberglass skis cluttering garages.

Good athletes make their sports look easy, effortless. They don’t battle with gravity, they play with it. When a level of proficiency is established, even among novices, there’s a feeling described as “being in the zone.” It’s a feeling of flow and synchronicity. It’s a feeling of exhilaration.

People can also experience these feelings in relationships. We have best friends, lovers, soul mates. There’s an ease we feel in each other’s company. And like being in the “the zone” there’s a lack of fear.

When I spent more time hiking and backpacking I enjoyed crossing boulder fields. Unlike walking on an easily identified trail, boulder fields lack a single defined route. As you hop from boulder to boulder you are constantly scanning ahead so that each choice you make regarding where to put your foot is sure to provide you with another option for moving forward. It felt like playing a game with a mountain.

Good trainers of dogs make the work they do look effortless. There’s a flow to behavior and their sight is already set on the next behavior and what they need to do to get it, what subtle shift of weight is necessary to end up at their desired destination. No missteps to send them tumbling.

It is possible when climbing up a rock face or ledges to get “bluffed.” You were able to go up or down to get to a particular location but there is no safe, next step to take, and it’s impossible to back track. It can require a rescue by professionals, if you’re lucky to have them available to help.

We can find ourselves “bluffed” by some dogs. There’s a behavior, perhaps one we’ve created, and there seems to be no turning back, and we can’t see a route forward. It is possible for some people to muscle their way to the top of a rock or through a challenging rapid. It can be tempting to try to muscle our way to behavior changes in our dogs.

The athletes who are a joy to watch are the ones who use good technique and finesse to reach their goals. The skaters who fly on the ice and the gymnasts who soar as though physical laws don’t pertain to them. Their efforts are imperceptible but the results are obvious. The time and energy they put into honing their skills is apparent.

The same is true of dog trainers. Force and coercion often mask a lack of skill. The thrill the audience gets watching these trainers is different than the thrill one gets watching an artist. When you’ve experienced performance “in the zone” you want to stay there. When you bring your dog along with you, you’re less likely to find yourself on behavioral bluffs, hoping that both of you make it out alive.

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11 comments so far

  1. jet on

    I like that analogy a lot 🙂 I do get into the zone with both my dogs but Barbie moreso and we definitely have a stronger bond.

  2. 24 Paws of Love on

    I love it when training just flows. When I’m not nervous or overwhelmed but have that sure foot feeling. Being in the zone with my dogs is an incredible feeling like the whole world is moving with you.

    I love the boulder to boulder explanation. Excellent analogy. Thanks for such a vivid description. Also makes it easier to understand.

    • Debbie on

      Glad you enjoyed it! Our dogs give us the opportunity to experience all kinds of transformations.

  3. Kay Liestman on

    Great job of painting a “word picture,” Debbie!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks for saying Kay!

      On Sun, Mar 17, 2013 at 12:33 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  4. Brenda Bell on

    I’m new to your blog, but really enjoy it. I’ve signed with an e-collar program and am seeing good results, but am concerned with the compulsion aspect. My dog sometimes wants to leave the training area, rather than do what I “ask”. But after we get past her initial reluctance, she seems very proud of herself. Very enthusiastic about putting on her collar. Are there resources you can point me to about this topic? This is an over-excited rescue dog who has real trouble with control.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s good of you to take on a challenging dog, and to continue to look for information about training. One of the things that’s important for us to keep in mind is that punishment (the shock of the collar) does give a dog information. It’s a consequence that a dog wants to avoid, so they figure out what they need to do. This can be highly reinforcing for a trainer because pain and discomfort are quick ways to get a dog to change their behavior. It “works” for us and so we use that evidence to keep on using it.

      My work (and the work of other reward based trainers) with fearful dogs is based not just on getting behaviors that work for us, but in finding behaviors that are also going to work for the dog, and creating them if we need to. Skilled rewards based trainers can motivate dogs to perform the behaviors we want, by providing consistent, timely rewards for those behaviors. We can indeed help a dog develop impulse control without punishing them with pain for losing that control but it often requires more finesse and skill than simply hitting the dog with a shock. Novice trainers and pet owners quickly become frustrated with the process.

      That your dog wants to leave the training area could be an indication that the punishment is being associated with the location. It can seem glaringly obvious to us why a dog is being “punished” but for most dogs it’s not that clear, and the shock becomes associated with the environment and not their behavior. We call this “superstitious learning.” If the rules and parameters are very clear and a dog is able to figure out how to avoid the shock, they will become more comfortable. One of the biggest risks of using pain in training is this association with other elements in the environment, or the environment itself. It can be difficult for a dog to know where the shock is coming from. I’ve seen some refuse to stand in a particular location again because they were shocked there.

      There are trainers who use shock collars and have a very good understanding of what they are doing. They understand the rules of punishment and reinforcement. But for animal trainers like me the question comes down to, just because we can, does it mean we should? Just because we can put any manner of device on a dog to get them to do what we want, does it mean we should? We have the luxury of doing almost anything to a dog, because they’re dogs, but would fail miserably were we to try to do the same thing to another animal. All of the force and pain free methods and techniques that can be used to train goldfish, hamsters, lions, giraffes, whales and parrots can be used to train dogs. That we choose not to says more about us than it does about a dog’s ability to learn without being subjected to painful stimuli.

      I’m not sure exactly what you are looking for in regard to resources. They range from easy reading to technical. Some of my favorite books include

      If A Dog’s Prayers Were Answered Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Suzanne Clothier
      The Culture Clash, Dogs are From Nepture, both by Jean Donaldson
      Coercion and it’s Fallout by Murray Sidman
      The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
      Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
      How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Sophia Yin
      Changing People Changing Dogs by Dee Ganley

      There’s a start! 😉

      And let me applaud you for taking on a dog and looking for training help, of any kind. Choosing to eschew the use of pain in training, even when it “works” is a process for many trainers. Less pain equals less stress, and less stress is what so many dogs need. I know that some trainers will use the argument that keeping a dog in their home, by stopping unwanted behaviors, is the main priority and use this as their reason for choosing pain to train. And I suppose that if there were no other alternatives available to us, I might even buy it. But the field of animal behavior and training is so rich in information about how to work with animals without using force, coercion, intimidation, pain or the threat of it, that it is only the trainer’s unwillingness to developing their own skills that seems to prevent them from doing so.

      • Brenda on

        Thank you so much for your reply, much beyond my expectations. The program I’m in uses the stimulation paired with the cue, at low settings, rather than as a consequence (punishment). As a negative reinforcement, it does get turned up, increased, until the dog complies, followed by praise. I compare the stim to a shoulder tap, which gets harder until I get the person’s (dog) attention. But I as you pointed out, just because it works doesn’t mean that it’s the best way, and may have undesired effects.

        I have some of the books you mentioned. I also recently read “Fired up, Frantic, and Freaked Out”, by Laura VanArenbock Baugh.

        My plan for now is to continue the training program, proceeding carefully, listening to my dog, continuing to study, and of course, following your blog.
        Thank you again.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Sounds like you have a good plan! Good luck and hopefully both you and your dog will enjoy the journey. Laura is a fabulous trainer, I haven’t read her book yet, but I suspect it’s great.

  5. Brenda Bell on

    I’ll buy the book and get back to you!


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