New Years famously yield new resolutions, but are you aware that the arrival of January also denotes the start to National Train Your Dog Month? What could be a more befitting way to celebrate this serendipitous concurrence than by resolving for a better training partnership with your dog?
Here are five golden rules to help make training with your dog better and easier, while avoiding some of the most common mistakes that owners make.
Golden Rule #5: Resist repeating yourself
I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed someone calling a dog’s name over and over again, getting louder with each repetition, while the dog seemingly ignores everything around it or is intently focussed on something else. This process breeds frustration for the humans, who are often amazed when I call their dog’s name and receive a response on my first try.
Repeating a cue is probably the single biggest error that trainers see when teaching owners—new or experienced—how to work with their dogs. As humans, when we make a request of someone and it isn’t honored, it is in our nature to repeat ourselves to ensure we were heard. Unfortunately, this is counterproductive to our cause in dog training.
Dogs learn by association, and our job is to help them associate certain words or gestures with behaviors. Remembering this, let’s go back to our original scenario.
An owner (let’s call him James) calls his dog’s name (let’s call her Bella) five times in an attempt to gain her attention. What are the possible outcomes here?
If Bella turns to look at James after hearing her name five times, she will either get:
1. Rewarded for responding.
2. Punished for not responding sooner.
3. Ignored by James.
4. Bella never acknowledges James.
In outcome 1, Bella learns that the correct thing to do when she hears her name is to wait for it to be called four more times, because that is when the reward comes. In outcome 2, she learns that responding to her name results in punishment—something she will try to avoid in the future—making her even less likely to respond to her name. In outcome 3, she learns that her name is irrelevant, as it did not produce anything meaningful; in other words, her name is white noise.
Rewarding outcome 4 provides no benefit to James, and as outcome 2 shows us, punishing Bella for non-compliance will only teach her to avoid punishment in the future. That means outcome 4 yields the same learning result for Bella as outcome 3: her name is irrelevant white noise.
Trainers know that we have to set dogs up for success in order to increase the rate of learning. Rewarding good behavior has been scientifically proven to do this, while fostering a human-canine bond built upon mutual trust and respect, rather than the desire to avoid fear, pain or punishment.
It is for this reason that I never ask a dog to perform a behavior that I think is unlikely to occur, which leads me to…
Golden Rule #4: Facilitate predictable outcomes
In other words, play the odds.
Skilled trainers understand the importance of setting dogs up for success and never ask for a behavior that isn’t likely to happen. It is important to remember that training is rooted in science, and like all science, it is a process that relies upon trial and error to clue us into solutions for the problem at-hand.Empowering dogs to make choices in their environment allows them to feel control over it, which in turn breeds comfort, confidence and calm behavior. Click To Tweet
When I watch an owner call their dog’s name repeatedly, I am looking very carefully at all aspects of the dog’s environment to clue me into why the dog may not be responding.
Is this a new location for the dog? Are there distractions present? Is the dog staring intently at something? Is it busy sniffing the ground? Are its ears twitching to indicate a distant sound that the owner and I cannot hear? What about the owner? Is their tone of voice scaring the dog? Are they gesturing in a confusing or potentially scary manner?
When it’s my turn to see if I can get a response, I consider all of these small details and wait until I think the dog is likely to comply with my request. Only then will I attempt calling the dog’s name. Oftentimes, this simply means waiting a few seconds until the dog has had a chance to process what is currently holding its attention.
Play the odds and take your best guess to increase the likelihood for success. If you still don’t get desirable results, remember the old Thomas Edison adage:
I have not failed. I merely found 10,000 ways not to make a lightbulb.
In our example above, James should have simply cut his losses and stopped calling Bella’s name after she failed to respond. Chances are she was simply focussed on something else in her environment, and she would have been willing to respond to James had he waited just a few seconds longer.
Golden Rule #3: Pay the sticker price
Every behavior has a price tag.
At its core, dog training hinges upon behavioral economics or the price we pay dogs to perform certain actions. For simple behaviors like “sit,” praise is often a sufficient paycheck for dogs. But more difficult behaviors like “stay” often require a bigger incentive than a simple “Good job!”
As humans, we are constantly negotiating life’s social constructs. For example, if I am moving to a new house and would like to borrow my friend’s truck, I need to make it worth his while. It’s also important to remember that while a slice of pizza would be sufficient thanks in this situation for me, a friend who doesn’t like Italian food would probably prefer something else.
The same is true for dogs. Every behavior has a price, but the price for a single behavior may vary from dog-to-dog. Let me give you an example.
I have two rescue dogs with polar opposite dispositions. Sonny, my basset hound, is the most social creature I have ever met. Trying to get him to walk away from the opportunity to play with another person or dog can be a monumental task. When we are at the dog park, a piece of kibble has less value to him than the opportunity to play with another dog. But a super high value treat like Plato salmon strips? That will do the trick.
Now my other boy, Franky, is a rehabilitated reactive dog. He can be very timid around new things, specifically people and other dogs. While we may never know for certain, we suspect he may have been abused or used in fighting circles before we adopted him. Now unlike Sonny, Franky could not care less about playing with other dogs. So when I call him away from one, verbal praise is sufficient.
This is not to say that Franky does not enjoy playing. Quite the contrary, he just prefers to play alone. I am certain that given the choice, Franky would sell his soul for an opportunity to chase a tennis ball. That is about the highest value reward I can offer him. Well, that and a burrito someone dropped on the street. So when I know we have a difficult training task ahead of us, I use this to my advantage. If Franky complies with my request, he gets to play fetch.
The more difficult the request, the higher the paycheck. It’s behavioral economics, and dogs generally have very little wiggle room on their sticker price. Remember, the learner decides what is rewarding, not the teacher.
Golden Rule #2: No pace for punishment
We just learned in training that the dog determines the value of a reward, not us. The converse of this is also true. The learner (dog) determines what is punishing, as well. While we may find yelling to be run of the mill behavior as humans, a dog may find it to be aversive. This is why we can never overlook the potential consequences of our actions as teachers.
Let’s look at an example.
Bella is a very strong puller, and James is having a difficult time walking her. He decides to buy a prong collar to teach her to walk with a loose leash. While James may see immediate relief from Bella’s leash pulling when using a prong collar, the problem with this aversive tool is with what James cannot see.
Prong collars function by causing discomfort when there is tension on the leash to teach a dog to avoid feeling pain. In fact, when the same force is applied to both a prong and flat collar, dogs experience 155 times more pressure from prongs on a very delicate area of their body.
The addition of something unpleasant to stop a behavior from occurring is known in dog training as positive punishment. Because dogs learn by association, anything present in the dog’s environment while it is feeling pain can take on a negative association—other dogs, children, strangers, bicycles, you name it. When this happens, the dog’s desire to avoid the pain around its neck can be transferred to a desire to avoid the things in its environment. This can lead to aggression toward those things, as the dog attempts to prevent them from causing it pain.
Research has shown time and time again that rewarding good behavior is leaps and bounds more humane and effective than punishing bad behavior.
It is because of this that positive reinforcement is the preferred training method for modern, cruelty-free trainers. Reward-based training has been scientifically proven to increase the rate of learning, encourages dogs to work harder for rewards, eliminates the need for forceful or aversive training tools, and fosters a human-canine bond built upon mutual trust and respect, rather than one on a dog’s desire to avoid fear, pain or punishment.
In addition to avoiding the use of positive punishment in training, it is also incumbent of us to remember that training must be done at the dog’s pace. If we push our four-legged friends too hard too fast in a training scenario, we can inadvertently cause them to develop traumatic emotional responses. And as we learned with prong collars, when this happens, aggression often follows.
Consider this example.
Because Lucy does not know how to swim, she has developed a fear of being in deep, open water. An ethical swim instructor would not teach Lucy how to swim by pushing her into the deep end of a pool before she has first built her confidence in shallow waters.
The same concept applies to dog training, as well. If your dog is afraid of bicycles, asking it to sit calmly as several of them zip by from a few feet away is a recipe for disaster. Instead, you need to work up to this kind of exposure in incremental steps. If you fail to recognize and honor your dog’s fear, it is likely to react aggressively in order to preempt that fear from happening the next time it sees a bicycle headed its way.
Golden Rule #1: Let the dog choose
“The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.” —renowned psychologist Dr. Susan Friedman
It is crucial to remember that all behavior is conditional. This means to teach or modify any behavior, we need to change the conditions that allow it to occur.
This may be the most important piece of advice a trainer can offer, which is somewhat ironic, because this is probably the most difficult golden rule for owners to follow.
In training, dogs are the learners, and we are the teachers. In other words, humans control the learning conditions. This means the onus to teach or modify a behavior doesn’t belong to the dog. Rather, it is our responsibility to change the conditions that allow it to exist.
Let’s say James comes home and finds Bella on the couch where she is not allowed. After cueing Bella to get down to no avail, James resorts to pushing Bella off the couch.
While the way James solved this problem may appear innocent on the surface, he is venturing down a potentially dangerous path. As descendants of wild animals, dogs have a natural instinct to protect valuable commodities such as food, toys, and locations like sleeping areas. In dog training, this is referred to as resource guarding.
For a wild animal, the loss of valuable resources can lead to death. By pushing Bella off the couch, not only is James removing her ability to choose where to sleep, he is leaving the underlying emotional reason for sleeping on the couch unaddressed. That spot on the couch did not lose its value simply because James pushed Bella off, and if she values that resource enough, she may preemptively growl or even bite James before his next attempt to remove her.
So what could James have done differently in this situation? How could he have taught Bella to choose to leave the couch?
Empowering dogs to make choices in their environment allows them to feel control over it, which in turn breeds comfort, confidence and calm behavior.
James solved this problem by showing Bella what she did wrong. But in order to preserve her choice and control as a learner, he would have been better served to show her what the correct thing is to do instead of sleeping on the couch.
In order to do this, James needs to remember Golden Rule #3: pay the sticker price. The reward for getting off the couch must be greater than the reward of being on it in the first place. The next time Bella is caught on the couch, James should lure her off with a high value toy, treat, and to an appropriate sleeping location. This way, Bella finds the alternative more rewarding than being on the couch, and with some repetition, she will choose to stay off it in the future.
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