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Stuck in the Middle - Five Tips for Training During the Transition from Puppyhood to Adulthood

Monday, January 22, 2024

Stuck in the Middle - Five Tips for Training During the Transition from Puppyhood to Adulthood

The middle game is one of the most challenging phases of the chess contest, and most experts agree that it is here that victory or defeat awaits its contenders. But, chess experts also agree that it is here that we get the full orchestration of the game, where each player has the opportunity to make use of all of their pieces to carry out strategic combinations, launch attacks, and create defensive systems.

Much of the same can be said about the contest waged between owner and dog. When first training a new puppy, the opening phase of the game is relatively straightforward. Treats are like pawns with their movement clearing the way for the future advancement of trained behaviors and where the progression of learning by each player is unhindered by lack of skill or will. It is only until we reach the middle-game, a period marked by the transition from puppyhood to adolescence, from exhilaration to exasperation, and from capable to incapable, that the true measure of each opponent’s desire to dominate the contest is laid bare. It is here, in the very trenches of dog training warfare, that only two concepts matter, attack bad behavior or defend oneself and one’s home from a swift and unruly canine coup. The middle game, master it or fall on your knees. Effortless in its declaration but complex in its execution, unless you heed the five essential principles of the middle game.

1. Stay centered. It’s a well-known fact that pieces in the center control a lot more squares than elsewhere. In dog training, centralizing your pieces is choosing a methodology that gives you more control of different behavioral possibilities. For instance, a balanced method allows you to attack a bad behavior by correcting it with many different pieces (equipment) from many different angles (training contexts). In contrast, an all-positive methodology limits your attack by using pawns (treats) only, resulting in a severe strategic disadvantage compared to the balanced method.

2. Avoid creating weak squares. Weak squares are those squares that a pawn cannot defend. The nearer the weak squares are to your King or the center of the board, the more problematic they become. Because pawns can’t go back, it’s their sudden or unplanned movement that typically leads to the creation of weak squares. In the game of dog training, avoiding weak squares can be accomplished by picking the most important battles—especially those battles for which there is no going back. For example, when your dog growls as you approach it while it’s eating, create a strategic defense of your square by turning and walking away. After all, if your dog cares enough about its food to attack you to keep you from taking it, then most likely, your dog will devour its food in just a few seconds, and you will avoid being put in check.

3. Trade perimeter pawns for central pawns.
Central pawns control the ever-important middle of the board, which supports the advancement of a strong attack. Therefore, it is not recommended that you trade a central pawn for a perimeter pawn. Instead, do the opposite by trading a perimeter pawn for your opponent’s central pawn. In the game of dog training, this means working smarter, not harder. For instance, because of its horizontal build and forward placed power, the average dog can easily pull four times its body weight for great distances over rugged terrain. When you attempt to stop your dog from pulling you by jerking back on the leash, you’re making your training harder because the direction of the jerk is in line with your dog’s power. Think of it as “resistance training” for your dog. As a result, your dog becomes a stronger puller, and you become frustrated and resign your king. Instead, try snapping or jerking your leash perpendicular to your dog’s direction of travel. In doing so, you will be trading your perimeter pawn (your weaker physical ability) for your opponent’s central pawn (their stronger physical ability) because the direction of your leash correction will go against your dog’s power, not with it. Smart move!

4. Rooks work best in open files. With their ability to move the length of the board, a Rook occupying an open file is a powerful tool for attacking and defending. However, a Rook trapped or cornered by other pieces is often rendered useless and can easily be captured by the opponent. When training your dog, think of your Rook as your mental attitude. When you are receptive to trying new approaches to training or new ways to motivate your dog to learn what it is that you are attempting to teach it, your mental attitude is occupying an open file. As a result, your dog’s undesirable behaviors are effectively attacked. Conversely, when you adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude when training suggestions are contributed, or you keep attempting to drive a “square peg through a round hole” by ignoring the fact that your dog is not a little person in a fur coat and consequently doesn’t actually “know what you mean,” then your Rook has become locked, trapped behind your narrow-minded pieces and thus, is rendered useless for attacking or defending. When this happens, it’s only a matter of time before your training program fails and your Rook is captured. Best to castle your King ahead of time.

5. Attack when you have the advantage. In the words of Russian Grandmaster Alexander Kotov, “the player who has the advantage must go over to the attack. Delays are disadvantageous and even at times dangerous.” When the attack comes too late, the opponent can succeed in regrouping his pieces to meet the attacking forces thus, eroding the attacker’s advantage until it eventually disappears. In the game of dog training, this means that one must “go over to the attack” by reinforcing behavior with a reward or a correction immediately after the behavior’s action. If the reinforcer comes too late, the behavior supports itself, and the attacker’s advantage is lost. Consequently, bad behaviors develop into worse behaviors, and future attacks will require more intensification in their execution to succeed.
The middle game for most dog owners occurs when their new puppy reaches seven months and continues until approximately eighteen months. It is a period where both time and training progress slows while frustration and doubts about a beautiful life together increase. Behaviors learned easily and with an abundance of eagerness as a puppy are suddenly marred by stubborn resistance and blossoming independence with each passing month. It’s when we first look at our teenage dog and think, “what have I done?”

However, the middle game has always been my favorite part of the contest between my dog and me. It’s during this phase of maturation when I have been able to achieve solid, reliable responses to ever-increasing complex commands - when a level of execution was only possible with the speed of youth and the focus of approaching adulthood. When I was finally able to “reap what I had sowed.”

​The same can be said of these months for you and your dog if you apply the five essential principles of the middle game by choosing the correct methodology, picking battles worth fighting (trust me, there will be plenty during this particular year of your dog’s life), working smarter, not harder, adopting an open and positive mental attitude, and going over to the attack by correcting or rewarding without hesitation. If you do, the middle game is where victory will await you.

Bryan Bailey

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Bryan Bailey

CBCC-KA Certified

Bryan Bailey, an acclaimed author, media personality, and expert in canine behavior and training, co-founded Taming the Wild and brings his diverse experience and innovative methods to his role as a mentor and director at The Academy for Canine Behavior and Training.

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