picture of a bernese mountain dog in nature and the text : bmdtutorials.com - bernese mountain dog tutorials by a dog parent, for dog parents

Chapter 5 - The Secrets of Dog Education

5 months old Bernese Mountain Dog Puppy
Bruno at 5 months old

What is dog motivation and why you need it

The first time I put together an Ikea piece of furniture, I was so proud my chest could barely fit my clothes. I was strutting around, Look at me, I made a rack. This experience motivated me to try other DIYs, so now I can make mortar, plaster, I know how to use a power drill and a power saw, and I even put a few planks in our floorboard. Each accomplishment encouraged me toward new adventures.

The same motivation manifests itself in your dog.

The more success he has, the more he wants to work and try new things.

I’ve seen it with Bruno countless times, Oh, this? I can do this with my eyes closed. It's called intrinsic motivation. And what else motivates your dog? Well, every dog is different and motivation depends on the situation, the time of the day, etc., but,

The Bernese Mountain Dog is usually motivated by food, praise, your affection and attention, walks and very little by play.

Why do we care so much about motivation? Because it’s the foundation of his education. In order to do anything, he needs a reason, nobody does anything without a reason. Maybe it's not an obvious reason, but you can be sure it’s there. Think about it. Would you ever tell a joke if no one laughed? Probably not. But if only once you get George from HR to spurt coffee out his nose at a joke you told, you’re hooked. Every day you come up with a new joke, your jokes get funnier every day, and even if from time to time your joke has less success than usual, you don't give up. You learn, Ahaaaa! So they don't like this kind of jokes, tomorrow I'll try a different one. They'll laugh so hard their faces will hurt.

So remember this when you train your dog. Ask yourself, What would motivate my dog at this moment? and make sure you offer him an infinite number of opportunities to succeed.

What do all trainers have in common no matter what language they speak

Imagine you’re at the dog park and all of a sudden you see behind the trees a 10-foot extraterrestrial squirrel coming toward you. Your dog is busy investigating a Husky and you want to call him before he sees the squirrel. You have the choice between the deep voice of a large frog, Coooome, and a sparkly chime-like voice, Here puppy, come-come-come-come. I think we both agree the large frog voice works better for, Doooown, than for recall.

And indeed, scientific research confirms. For example, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., expert dog educator, did a study4 about how human voice influences dog and horse behavior. The 110 trainers she observed as part of this study spoke different languages, so it was only the quality of the voice that could convey meaning to her, not the words themselves. The result? All trainers used short brisk sounds to encourage the animal to start or to accelerate, one short brisk sound to get them to stop, and a long sound to slow or calm them down.

Another scientific study 5 demonstrates the tone of your voice doesn't just influence your dog, but it also influences you. Here’s how the experiment went. The participants read some text aloud while hearing their own voice in real-time in the headphones. Without their knowing, the scientists slightly modified the sound of the voice in the headphones. As a result, a group of participants would hear their voice more positive and energetic, another group slower, sadder, and yet another a little trembling. After the experiment, the scientists took measures to determine the participants’ moods. Those who heard a more positive voice felt more optimistic, those who heard a trembling voice felt more anxious, those who heard a sadder voice felt sad. Isn't this amazing?

It’s not so much what you say, as how you say it.

And it matters for your dog and for you.

All dogs are sensitive to the tone of voice, but the Bernese Mountain Dog is ultra-sensitive.

If you talk cheerfully, you become cheerful and so does your dog. You can ask him anything dogly possible in a soft voice and he cooperates.

Next let's talk about discipline, an essential skill especially for a guard dog. I know, he's sweet and fluffy but he's still a guard dog. The good news is discipline doesn't mean army life. It simply means you establish some rules and you stick with them. The idea behind is your dog knows what to expect in all situations.

It's like when you’re thoroughly prepared for an exam and you're confident. You know no matter what question they ask, you have the right answer. Similarly, when your dog knows what to expect, it's as if he had a crystal ball with the answers to all questions. He's confident.

For example, if you decided he doesn't get table scraps, no one’s allowed to give him table scraps. Not you, nor your child, nor grandma, nor the guests, not even Santa. Or if you decide he’s allowed table scraps if he behaves, no one may give him anything if he's whining or jumping around the table like a sugar-fed rabbit. Only if he remains calm while you’re eating, then he gets something.

Same with the couch. If you decide he’s not allowed on the couch, nobody may let him on the couch, no excuses. I like allowing Bruno on the couch, and if I want him to get off the couch, all I have to do is ask. I taught him this skill right from the start. I said, Bruno, off the couch! and immediately threw a treat on the ground. To which of course he obliged. Hey, a treat is a treat. After a few times hearing the cue Off the couch paired with the treat on the ground, he learned what it means. Now I don't even have to give him a treat each time, actually, I rarely give him a treat for getting off the couch nowadays.

Emotional offers

Now that we've got discipline covered, let's talk about emotional offers. Maybe you're wondering, What are emotional offers?

Emotional offers are gestures, looks, smiles, words we use in an attempt to make an emotional connection with someone.

For example, imagine you're at a restaurant. While waiting for your food, you're drinking a Crodino and innocently spy on the other clients. At the table on your right, there’s a nineish-year-old child and a mustached bearded man, the color of his hair is salt and pepper. They're eating something green and gooey with fries. You're wondering what’s that gooey green thing and you take another sip from your Crodino glass. The child looks for something in his backpack. Dad, do you like my drawing? and he hands him a sheet of paper. The bearded man lays his fork on the border of his plate, takes the drawing and looks at it for a few moments. Do I like it? I love it! I especially love how you drew these puppies. Look at their cute snouts! Congratulations, Dennis! You’re a great artist. Then he looks at Dennis and smiles. Dennis smiles back at his father and puts the drawing away.

So here, the child makes the first emotional offer when he says, Dad, do you like my drawing? The father shows enthusiasm for his child's accomplishment, thereby answering the offer. Next, it’s the father who makes an emotional offer, the smile. And the child answers the offer by smiling back.

Dr. John and Julie Gottman6 are the ones who discovered emotional offers. They studied thousands of relationships for years on end, especially parent-child and couples relationships. They’re able to predict divorce with great accuracy. 93.6% to be precise. How do they do it? Well, one of their tools is to count emotional offers. How many offers do partners respond to? How many do they ignore or flatly reject? Do they answer one in five? No bueno. Do they answer 3, 4 or even 5 out of 5? The more the better.

Now you may be wondering, Okay, all this is very interesting. But what does that have to do with my dog? Let me explain. We accept, ignore or reject emotional offers in any type of relationship: parent-child, sister-sister, sister-brother, in a couple, between colleagues, friends and even between you and your dog.

When you answer an emotional offer, it means7:

  • I care
  • I hear you
  • I understand you” or “I’m trying to understand you
  • I want to help you” or “I’m trying to help you
  • I accept you
  • I’m on your side

What do I mean by that? You’re the one who begins most of the interactions between you and your dog. Certainly, you have authority over your dog. There are situations where he doesn't know the social rules yet and he must accept your guidance. So yes, sometimes he has to execute without asking questions. And because you're using love, not fear, this doesn't make you a dictator, but a guide, parent or guardian.

As a guide, parent or guardian, of course you care about your dog, you accept him, hear him, you try to understand and help him, and you're on his side. But how do you know when it’s your dog who makes emotional offers? Here are a few examples from my day to day life with Bruno:

  • Hooman, I want your attention, and he brushes you with his tail in passing
  • Pet me, and he sits on your foot. With all his 100 pounds
  • I care about what you say, I really try to understand, and he looks at you tilting his head to the left and to the right while you speak
  • Look what I found! Come and see! and he sniffs the grass
  • Woof! Woof! Woof! A magpie has trespassed! Help me defend the territory! Let's bark together!
  • I’m happy to see you, and he wags his fluffy tail
  • Thank you, and he pushes his head in your knees
  • I want to be close to you, and he helps you with all your chores. Especially gardening
  • I love you, and he looks at you, bright-eyed, laughing with his magical Berner cheeks

Now you know what it looks like when your dog makes you emotional offers, so you’re equipped to respond to him. Awesome!

The Slipper Business

Let's move on and find out the truth about The Slipper Business. So you know how your dog is constantly bombarded with decisions to make? It's in your power to teach him how to make good decisions. For example, when he strolls in the living room, walking around the chair legs, wondering, What would be something fun to do? wouldn't you wanna know his adventure continues with, Oh, there's my toy, let me chew on that! Or if you're in the garden, wouldn't you wanna know your carrots are safe? Or when he wakes up and, Oh, my bladder’s gonna burst any moment now! Wouldn't you like him to immediately decide, I'll run outside quickly!

So indeed your puppy constantly has to make decisions. How do you help him decide for his chew toy, instead of the remote control? Decide to pee outside, not in the living room? To dig in Doggyland, not in your carrots? How do you teach him to make choices you can be proud of?

Well, the secret is management and rigging, all throughout the learning duration. What does that mean? Management means you arrange the situations so it's physically impossible for him to make a mistake. Rigging means you arrange the cards in his favor, and therefore in your favor.

You make sure he only has good decisions to choose from, you set him up for success.

Let's take the chewing example. So how do you teach your puppy to choose to chew his toy, not the remote, nor the slippers, cables, etc.?

MANAGEMENT

You don't leave anything within his reach. You should’ve seen what a Feng Shui house we had when Bruno was a baby! He had taught us to tidy up like pros. There was nothing lying around on the furniture, no papers, no crayons, no open packaging, no glasses, no headphones, no biscuits, no phones. We’d even hid the cables. But until we learned our lesson, the camera and a few other things took one for the team.

SUPERVISION

It's also part of management and it means that until he learns, you always keep your eyes on him. If he still finds a way to chew on something other than his toys, you interrupt him with a kissy noise and you redirect him to his chew toys.

RIGGING

You arrange the cards in his favor, offering him only opportunities to make good choices. How do you do that? First, you put within his reach only toys he's allowed to chew on, especially until around his 6 months anniversary. This is when he finishes changing his milk teeth.

Then you offer him opportunities to make good choices, namely, you teach him to distinguish between his toys and other things. Here's the method I suggest. You stuff a chew toy with his food and a few crumbles of fish paté or some other Yummy-wow.

You put the chew toy right in front of him, and a slipper somewhere further. Close enough to be on his radar, but far enough to keep it uninteresting. Now your puppy has a decision to make: to chew on his toy, or to investigate the slipper. If he chooses his toy, congratulations, you succeeded in rigging the cards in his favor. If in spite of your efforts he still goes for the slipper, don't worry, it's okay. You can let him sniff it, look at it, prowl around it. But he can't chew on it. If he starts chewing on it, you reset the game. But this time you put the slipper further away, or you replace it with an object that's even more boring than the slipper. This is how you make sure his chew toy is always his only choice, he can only win this game. Awesome, right?

Then you repeat. With every repetition, you bring the slipper closer and closer to the puppy. Each time you make sure the toy remains the easiest choice. Finally, the puppy gets used to the presence of the slipper and he ignores it. And then? Then you can repeat the whole game with other objects, for example with socks. I know a dog who loves to steal socks, he knows who he is. He-he-he 😋

Troubleshooting

We're only human, mistakes happen, sometimes we multitask, sometimes we’re tired. And maybe for a few moments, you leave your puppy unsupervised. What do you do if you ever find he took the slipper or [insert favorite object] and turned it to shreds? Well, if you catch him in the act, you interrupt and redirect him to his chew toy. You tell him what to do instead of ripping the slipper apart.

But what if you don't catch him in the act, and you find yourself in a living room full of pieces of slipper, or [precious object]? Well, you clean up the mess and you make sure you’re more vigilant next time so he can't get himself in trouble.

Do your best not to get upset with the puppy. Because here's the truth about The Slipper Business: your dog can't even feel guilt, he’s not physically equipped for this emotion8, 9, 10. He can’t make the link between you being upset and his past action. Your dog lives in the present, even if he didn't read Eckhart Tolle. It's up to you to teach him how to interact with his environment.

That being said, if you’re anything like me, I know it can be hard sometimes not to get upset. So if you do get upset, put the puppy in the playpen and handle your emotions. What do you usually do to calm down? Maybe it’s going for walk, maybe it’s taking a warm bath, drinking a warm tea, talking to a friend, primal screaming into a pillow, doing meditation or watching something funny. Do what you need to do, but don't take it out on the puppy. You'll thank yourself for it soon enough, when you realize you've kept the relationship with your dog pristine.

Should you fire your therapist?

Now that we've got that covered, let's move on and see what your dog has in common with a three-year-old child. You know the IQ, the intelligence quotient? Well, that's what they have in common. A three-year-old child knows the meaning of around 200 words and she can even understand 3 to 4 words long sentences. Likewise, your Bernese Mountain Dog can learn around 250 words. And he can even understand sentences. He gets to this performance only by hearing you talk, without your intentional teaching.

Of course, this way he only learns the words that interest him directly. Here are some words Bruno learned by himself. Yes, we take the dog with us! In half a second he’s in the harnessing spot. Wanna go outside? If he does, he sits in front of the door. If not, he only lifts a dot and stays where he is. You know the Berner has a brown dot above each eye, like an eyebrow? That’s the dot I’m talking about. Who’s a good puppy? And you immediately see him drop on the floor, wheels up. What is it, show me? Come on show me! And he runs at the fridge. Or near the table, depending on where the Yummy-wow is.

He also learned Dina means cat. One day we were preparing to get the cat to the vet, for her vaccines. Dina! I shouted. Dina! Fred shouted. No answer. Where’s Dina? Bruno raced from under the table and stopped in front of the stairwell. Then he just sat there laughing. He's not allowed to use the stairs and he respects that. You know, big dogs need to take care of their hips. Is Dina upstairs? And indeed, Dina was sleeping in the bedroom upstairs. Woooow, I never fully recovered from the shock: Bruno knows synonyms.

So you see now why you don't need your therapist anymore: you can talk to your dog instead. Just kidding, don't fire your therapist! But I'm not kidding about talking to your dog. You can tell him what's on your mind, he doesn't judge you and he likes to listen to you. And because you talk to him so much you also enrich his vocabulary.

The more you talk to your dog, the more words he learns.

Likes, likes and more likes

Okay, let's move on. Do you know what all social networks have in common? They all encourage you to do things so you get to Likes. That picture of you sticking your blue tongue out after drinking a blueberry slush? 137 Likes. That picture of you and your sisters, in which you look like secret agents? 242 Likes. You holding the baby Berner? 1 million Loves.

Well, your puppy doesn't know how to use a computer. At least that's what I think. But he likes receiving Likes and Loves, that's for sure. How do you do give him Likes and Loves? Here’s a way. You sit and you look at him for 2 to 3 minutes every now and then, every day. And you just observe him. What’s he doing? Is he sleeping, sitting, looking at you, laughing with his magical Berner cheeks, chewing on his toy? You simply look. Do you like what he’s doing? Then you say, Good puppy! you pet him and you give him a treat. And this is how you give Likes to a dog. Tadaaaa!

The RPP Technique: reward perseverance and progress

Now let's talk about the RPP Technique that guarantees the success of every mission. Maybe you're wondering what RPP is. RPP stands for Reward Perseverance and Progress.

Have you ever seen a baby learning to walk? How does she do it? Well, in the beginning, she walks on all fours. Then she gets up by holding herself to the couch. And maybe she takes a step or two. But for a while, she'll keep walking on all fours most of the time.

What do you think her parents will say, Honey, I think this kid it is simply not meant for two-legged walking. No. If they did, we’d all be walking like Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Instead, her parents encourage her, applaud her, Come to momma! Come on! Yeees! Great! Now go to daddy! Yeeees! So they don't wait until the child has completed learning two-legged walking, to tell her, Congratulations, dear. Instead, they show her their enthusiasm for every step, for every effort, for each progress.

It's the same with your puppy. You wanna teach him where his toilet is? Or the meaning of Sit, Down or Come?

Whatever you want to teach him, praise him and reward him each step of the way, show him your enthusiasm for every effort, for every progress.

My dog can't have enough of playing fetch, said no one ever about a Bernese Mountain Dog

All of this is great. Rewarding progress is the way to go, but how do you set realistic expectations?

You can teach him anything dogly possible, as long as you have realistic expectations. Each breed has its own tendencies. The Bernese Mountain Dog is naturally inclined toward tugging, chasing and Look what I've got, come and get it, you can't have it, come and get it games and any game that implies treats. But you can definitely teach him Fetch, for example. He's just not all that into it.

Maybe you're saying, What do you mean he's not into it? All dogs fetch, they're dogs. (Anyway, that's what I thought before Bruno.) Maybe you've seen dogs playing fetch from sunrise till dawn. There certainly are some Berners who really like it, I just never heard of them.

My Bruno, for instance, knows how to fetch. But if you ask him what he thinks about it, he's more likely to say, If you want this ball so badly, why do you keep throwing it away? I've already brought it to you twice, I'm done. From now on fetch it yourself. Sometimes he even fetches it four or five times in a row.

And I even saw a Bernese Mountain Dog in an agility competition. He succeeded to focus the whole parkour. Okay, he did stop to sniff here and there. He climbed the ramp, he went through the plastic tunnel, he jumped obstacles — obstacle height adapted to big dogs of course, which is about 4 inches. He even did the slalom.

And you know what? He didn't make the best time. He actually was the slowest of all participants. But that’s not what matters. What matters is he did the whole parkour, Berner style. Like a king strolling through his garden, waving at his subjects. And sometimes snatching the buffoon’s hat and running with it. What matters is he had fun and stayed true to himself. On top of that, all the spectators applauded him as if he had actually won. So,

Teach him whatever you want. But make sure you adapt the game to his temperament and size.