Best Dog Training Tool No One Ever Talks About

For training Honey, we have a clicker, loads of treats, and some fun toys. We have leashes. Before we moved onto the boat, we had several books.

But our most powerful training tool is something we rarely hear anyone talking about. Can you guess what it is?

Honey the golden retriever at Lady's Island Marina.

I’m dying to know what it is.
By the way, there isn’t anything scary crawling out of the marshes behind me, is there?

It’s All About The Relationship

When it comes to house training, sitting, staying, walking by my side, and shaking hands Honey is a breeze to train. She’s smart and eager to please.

But she struggles with some of our training goals for her.

Long time readers might remember how long we spent teaching her to ride in our bike cart. And the first time I put our boat ramp on the ground, she wouldn’t even walk on it for liver treats.

Honey the golden retriever puppy rides her bike cart to work.

“Let me out of this thing.”
We started training Honey with the bike cart when she was a puppy…

Honey the golden retriever comes to the dog park in her bike cart.

… But she was fully grown by the time we mastered it.
And now you know what REALLY turned my hair gray.

You see, Honey is a cautious pup. Tricks that require courage take a lot of time to train.

And it’s why we spend as much time building her trust in us as we do any real training.

Yep, my secret, extra, super-duper training tool is trust. It’s so important. And yet some dog trainers never talk about it.

I can’t get Honey to do scary things just by holding out a yummy treat. She needs to know she can trust me. And once she does, she’ll do things that normally freak her out.

Like touch a scary balloon.

Barking At The Scary Balloon

Honey’s a pretty quiet dog.

She barks to get our attention. She barks to tell Ace, the cute pit bull on the boat two slips over, that she’s here and wants to play. But that’s about it.

So you can imagine how startled I was when we came back from a walk the other day to have Honey start barking in alarm.

What is it Honey? A wild animal? A threatening person?

Nope, it was a pair of mylar balloons tied to a mailbox and floating in the breeze.

Honey the golden retriever touches a balloon.

Okay, I’m touching it. Where’s my treat?

Not only did she bark at the balloons but twice she tried to approach them and reared back when they moved again.

Honey the golden retriever with scary balloons.

How about I just stick my tongue out at the balloons and we call it a day?

I walked closer to the balloons with Honey on the leash. And then I asked her to touch the balloons with her nose.

She didn’t hesitate. Not one second.

You see, I’ve been asking Honey to “touch” items since she was a puppy. It’s a fabulous training tool called targeting.

We started by rewarding her for touching my hand with her nose. We worked with non scary items like chairs and balls.

And when I had built enough trust with Honey so she knew I’d never ask her to touch something that would hurt her, we moved up to having her shut doors that would close with a bang. Or broom handles that might fall over.

Or even a scary balloon.

No matter how well-trained Honey was, I would not have expected her to put her face right on the balloons that had startled her a few moments ago if I had not deposited thousands of hours in her trust bank.

Honey the golden retriever poses with an anchor in Beaufort Waterfront Park.

You know how cautious I am around leaning things. Are you sure this anchor isn’t going anywhere?

Building Trust With Your Dog

Yep, exercise is important. And so is good nutrition. But few things you do will benefit you and your dog over the long run as building a trusting relationship.

How do you build trust?

DO listen to your dog. Let them know that when they communicate with you, you’ll listen.

DON’T ignore their need for a break or play time. Besides it’s good for you to get up too.

DO give your dog something after you promise it. Even if you “click” a mistake, you’ve gotta give the reward.

DON’T tease your dog. Sure, it’s funny to see the look on your dog’s face when you pretend to throw a ball or wrinkle a food wrapper. But resist. It’s not worth breaking your dog’s trust.

DO everything you can to keep your dog safe. They need to know you’re there to protect them.

DON’T make him or her deal with rude behavior from people or other dogs. Step in and end the uncomfortable situation.

And of course, the easiest way to build trust is just to enjoy spending time with your dog every day.

The Benefits of Trust

We see lots of brave boat dogs.

They leap onto the boat from the dock. They hang out on the bow and watch the dolphins. They dive into the water for a fun swim.

Honey wouldn’t do any of those things without lots and lots of training, practice, and not a few withdrawals from the trust bank.

We don’t need her to do those things.

But we do need her to stay calm when the boat is rocking and rolling in rough seas. We need her to walk up steep and slippery ramps when low tide makes it harder to get to the dock. And we need her to sit quietly in the dinghy when I’m struggling to row us back to the boat.

So I’ll just keep making deposits in the trust bank. It’s the best training tool I know.

Honey the golden retriever high five.

I can do anything!

Congratulations to yesterday’s commenters, Lauren of The Adventures of Zoe & Phoenix and Melissa of Two Pitties Afloat who knew we were using a cue to help Honey with her fear of the balloons. And also to Elaine of Chasing Dog Tales who figured it was part of training  her away from fear.

If you don’t know these awesome blogs, check them out. They’re all wonderful.

Your Turn: How do you know your dog trusts you?

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  1. My Border Collie mix Lilah is just like Honey. We have played the Touch It With Your Nose game since she was just a few months old. She was so skittish nearly anything would make her cower and back away, or bark like Honey. Today, Lilah knows that anything I ask her to Touch With Her Nose is safe, and she’ll approach it with a wag — cautiously — but knowing nothing I’ve ever asked her to touch would ever turn out to be scary. And always accompanying the Touch It with love, praise and treats. You’re so right: trust is a powerful tool.
    —Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

  2. I’m so glad you touched on this topic. The relationship is always going to be more important than the latest tool or gadget when it comes to training.

    Laika and I still have a long way to go with training, but one thing remains the same: all that effort pays off. She’s always looking to me to find out what comes next, and it’s such a great feeling.

  3. Trust is a very important component to living well for dogs and humans. We are always working on Mom trusting us which seems to be more difficult than us trusting her.

  4. Our packs and us have a very flexible relationship, but trust is not one we fool around with. It means everything from communicating and training to doing those scary things. and it goes both ways. It’s such an awesome feeling when your dog can trust you and you can trust them.

  5. Such a great post and very true! Ziva is my cautious pup but she trusts me a lot. 🙂

  6. Excellent post and I couldn’t agree more! Having an awesome relationship built on trust and understanding is more important than anything else. Also, thank you for linking to us! <3

  7. This is such an important concept, and it’s so easy to overlook. My Sinead is super shy, and she lacks confidence in new situations, too. That means I have to work really hard to make sure that the things I introduce her to really *are* as safe as I suggest they are. We do a lot of pre-screening around here, so I can make sure I don’t inadvertently encourage her to do something she will find scary.

    Jean from Welcome to the Menagerie

  8. Ah yes, the “trust bank” (as you so aptly named it)! Soooo very important! Callie and Shadow were always very trusting. Callie was – for the most part – a very confident dog (except just before and during thunderstorms when she got a bit older), so her trust was easy to gain from the start. Shadow not quite as much, but Callie was, truthfully, her best teacher. She relied heavily on Callie, especially when Sam and I were at work. Ducky trusts me; but Sam is another story. She trusts me and looks to me for guidance. But Sam’s impatience (with a lot of things, not just the dogs) makes it hard for Ducky. Yet, she knows that despite his “tantrums”, he does love her. And it’s evident when she climbs into his lap and falls asleep while we’re watching tv. I’ve been working with her since before we adopted her, so she learned that way to trust me. But watching Callie (especially) and Shadow during the first 3 years really helped a lot too. Callie really was my “mother’s helper” when it came to raising (Shadow and) Ducky. Thank goodness she passed her “talents” on to Shadow before she left this earth!

  9. I got all my guys as adults. The Poodles had no trust issues since they had pretty much ruled the households where they lived, but the dogs had some problems with trust that took a while and a lot of patience to overcome. I think having multiple dogs made it all go easier.

  10. High five indeed! I love the idea of ‘targeting’ and will try to implement it with Sam. He has suddenly developed an aversion of going through one side of the dining room completely wigging out and skidding around the table on hardwood floors (which makes for no traction and usually a crash). Silly dog! Hoppy Easter. 🙂

  11. Excellent post. Trust is extremely important. I think it goes hand in hand with training. I think the two build off one another with training building trust. Patience also plays a part in trust building. Sometimes we are inclined to want to move faster in training, but have to have patience and slow down in order to solidify trust.

  12. Aww. My dog is scared of smoke from campfires and visible car exhaust in cold days. (Good things to be cautious of.) He trusts me because he’ll walk by these scary things if I’m between him and the smoke/exhaust.

    He also looks to me to point at where he should step when obstacles are a little difficult for him in old age. Like pointing to an easier way to step into a vehicle.

  13. Trust is so important, that’s why i got so upset that time BD went for m. Yes, it was completely my fault, I mean what idiot startles a fearful dog with space issues… yet the fact he felt he needed to protect himself when he was in his house with me and OH. That’s the bit that got me the most, the fact he didn’t trust me to keep him safe