Saturday, January 1, 2011

It's a Nothing

Ever hear the expression, “It’s a nothing”? Ever wonder what it means, and why it’s an important concept in dog training? Basically a nothing is something a dog does that you choose to ignore. In other words, you don’t correct him and you don’t praise him; you act as if it never even happened.
I first heard Dave Walker use this term in the early 1990s. Dave had flown to Pennsylvania to do a seminar, after which Dave and I had kicked back and relaxed around a picnic table. I had an eight-week-old pup with me. He had found a dead quail and was lying under the table eating it. Feeling a little self-conscious about what to do, I glanced at Dave. He was watching the pup too.
“So, what would you do?” I asked, pointing at the pup.
“Nothing,” he replied. “It’s a nothing.”
Dave went on to explain that if I took the bird away from the pup, the pup would remember, and next time he might be less willing to bring me a bird. On the other hand, if I praised him, I was sending him a message that would be a contradiction once the steadying process began. By treating it as a nothing and ignoring him, I kept myself from being involved and sending the pup mixed messages.
Over the years I have thought a lot about this exchange, and the concept of a nothing continues to help me in training. Just the other day one of my training buddies missed an e-collar correction when her dog broke at the shot. She felt badly and asked me what she should do. I told her to treat it like a nothing, which is just what she did. She did not dwell on it or feel frustrated. Instead, she stayed calm and ignored what her dog had done. She moved quickly to the next setup, and this time her hand was on the transmitter and she was ready to correct him if he broke when she fired the blank gun.
I asked Maurice Lindley, who trained with Bill West, if he was familiar with nothings. He said he knew all about them. “I think it takes people a long time to understand that most stuff is just not that important,” Maurice said. “If a little mistake happens, they worry that they’re ruining their dogs. Bill West said that most people think if a dog catches a bird, it will set him back thirty days. Bill said it usually just sets him back one workout—maybe two. Bill knew the dog would try to catch a bird in the next workout, and if so, he’d be ready to make a correction the dog would understand.”
So many times things happen in training that we cannot control. There are missed corrections, unusual situations, and times when we simply don’t have a clue what to do. By not making a big deal out of these events, we avoid getting upset, or worrying about whether we should correct or praise the dog. By ignoring what the dog did and staying calm, we can move directly to the next setup, knowing that the dog will most likely do it again, and this time we’ll be prepared. To quote Maurice again, “Training dogs is so much nicer when you can stay calm.”