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Do or Do Not – How Decide What to Train

We all have things we’d like have our dogs not do. Maybe your dog goes full blown Rambo every time the doorbell rings, or maybe your pup loves to snarf things off your plate when your back is turned, or maybe you’d like to have a nice calm trot around the neighbor instead of having your arm pulled out of its socket over every leaf, twig or blade of grass that moves 🙂

When I ask folks,”What do you want me to teach your dog?” they almost always answer in the negative. They’ll say I want my dog to stop doing BLAH. Where that “blah” is any of the many annoying, if sometimes endearing, behaviors that drive most of us nuts. What I think a lot of people don’t realize is that this negative frame of mind, is exactly the wrong one to be in when training your dog.

Let’s use an example.

Client: “I’d like my lovely dog, Fido, to stop jumping on guests every time someone comes to visit.”

How can we teach Fido to stop jumping? The issue here is that if we stop one behavior another one will take it’s place. That’s a major problem, especially if we focus all our training solely on stopping an unwanted behavior. If I get Fido to no longer jump on people, and instead he now nips and bites at guest’s pants and shoes, have I succeeded in this training? I can bet you the Fido’s owners will give a sound NO to that question. Even though, technically, I did do exactly what they asked. I stopped Fido from jumping.

This is one of the major flaws in using punishment when doing dog training. If you only ever hit/jerk/shock the dog when they make a mistake how are they ever supposed to figure out what they’re supposed to do instead? And how can you be assured that your dog who used to only growl at strangers, won’t switch to biting strangers because you only taught him that “growling” resulted in punishment?

Whenever I hear a negative training request, I have to do some human to canine translation. I can’t just focus on what we want our dogs not to do, I need to think instead rephrase it as what we want them to do as an alternative behavior. For the example above, instead of jumping whenever a visitor comes, I’d like Fido to walk over and lay down on a mat until I release him to come say hi to my guests. That’s an alternative. Then we need to work teaching little Fido in small steps how to accomplish that specific alternative behavior vs leaving him to guess what it is we want him to do instead.

It’s kind of a fun way to think about problems in general. Let’s have you try your hand at it. Think of some alternative things you can train your dog to do for each of these unwanted behaviors below:

  • I want Fido to stop taking food from my plate.
  • I want Fido to stop pulling on the leash.
  • I want Fido to quit barking at the UPS truck (Esther’s arch-nemesis)

How did you do? Everyone’s ideal alternative would be slightly different so it’s very important to decide as a family what exactly you’d like to do instead. Dogs need both consistency and patience on our parts to be success, and framing our tasks as teach alternative behaviors is the first step!

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Gamification of Training

Training. Most people think of training as that boring thing you have to do to drill you dog into becoming a proper canine member of society. Each day you practice the same thing, over and over until one day, maybe, your dog will understand. Or worse yet, you dislike the idea of drilling something over and over so much, that a small fixable problem turns into what seems like a insurmountable one. What a lot of people don’t realize is that your dog picks up on your “bored” or “disinterested” approach to training and it effects their learning too.

To get good results, we need to teach positively, and be upbeat and quick pace for our dogs to remain interested and engaged in what they’re learning. The same environment applies to humans too. Think back to your own favorite professor or teacher growing up. Did that person stand at the front of the classroom, and read from the slides or make you do drills for hours on end? No. Dogs enjoy the same types of learning environments we do.

This spring I enrolled in the “Spring into Transformation” course taught online by Absolute Dogs. Their whole training model focuses around making training enjoyable for both canine and human. And most importantly have fun while learning useful skills to build confidence and promote optimism. Thus far it’s been an interesting take on dog training for me. So often in training everyone is working towards a final finish line: like a sit or a down. We try to micromanage everything instead of teaching the dogs skills they need to apply to general situations.

This, I feel, is a major flaw in most training classes. You teach everything in one location. Dogs are terrible at generalizing behaviors to different situations. Human however excel at this. If I teach you how to read in the living room and then hand you a book in the kitchen. Odds are you’ll still know how to read. Dog’s minds don’t work like this. If you only teach dogs how to sit in the living room, they will ONLY know how to sit in the living room, ask them to do so in the kitchen and it will take a while before they realize you’re asking for the same behavior. This learning difference can make dog training hard because we can’t possible train in every single situation we might encounter in real life.

Spring into Transformation turns this on its head. Instead of teaching your dog to say wear a muzzle, you teach them the general behavior of getting rewarded for sticking their face into things. Even more basic things like getting your dog to walk across uneven surfaces or unfamiliar surfaces like marble, gravel or wood chips is transformed into a game that’s fun and enjoyable for you both.

To illustrate this we have our TLC alumni super star Esther. She’ll be demonstrating a new game called “feet on” which is designed to get dogs used to walking on different textures and to get comfortable with unsteady surfaces. All in all it builds both confidence that the new sensation won’t hurt them, and optimism in that novelty brings about good things! For the video below, we’re just using Esther’s dinner as her rewards, so instead of just getting an entire “free” bowl of kibble, she works for it (and you’ll see how much she hates that haha!).

For now, don’t worry about the techniques, we’ll chat more about all the components later, but here’s some basic lingo to get you started. I’m using “yes” as a clicker as I didn’t have my actual clicker handy and Esther has been taught both clicker or “yes” mean it marks “that” was the behavior I was looking for. I use a combination of “luring” to pull her onto the pillow the first few times, then I’ll fade that away and see if she offers the behavior herself without any guidance. Esther is very good at these “guess what crazy thing mom wants you to do” games and as you’ll see below how quickly she picks up the “game”. The other thing you’ll note, is I don’t use any verbal words for what I want her do to – something a lot of folks forget. Since she doesn’t know the behavior yet… how can it have a name? We’ll add the name in later, after she already knows it. Watch below as Esther attempts her first “feet on” on a very easy object – a pillow. Enjoy!

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Q & A – What is positive reinforcement training?

Q: What is positive reinforcement training?
Positive Reinforcement is the “addition” (positive) of something that will make the behavior you want to happen more frequently (reinforcement). The power in this type of training is you are giving the dog a choice. And with that choice comes power. They get to “choose” to be with you, “choose” to have “good” manners” and “choose” to listen to you when you ask them to do something. We will reward and build value the behaviors we want aka “the good” and devalue and the ones we want to see less. When given the “choice” between a $100 bill and a $1. Which would you choose? It’s your choice.

A real world behavior is with my own dog (and TLC Alumni) Esther. One of the first things I taught her was how to sit and I reinforced the crap out of it. Anytime I saw her sitting, something awesome would happen. Now her default behavior when she isn’t sure what I’m asking her to do is to try a sit first. Doesn’t seem like much but it’s awesome! Why? A sitting dog can’t jump on guests, can’t steal a sock, can’t play keep away, can’t run away from you or into danger, etc. A sitting dog is a good dog.

Q: Okay, so rewarding “the good” with treats, won’t that make my dog fat?
A great question I get asked a lot, and a common reason why a lot of people are worried about training in this manner. The thing is, treats work on a scale. There are things your dog will do ANYTHING for (Esther’s favorite is CHEESE!) and things your dog still loves, but doesn’t go head over heels for (Esther also likes carrots and dry dog kibble).

You know that adage “Nothing in life is free?” Most people forget about kibble. You know how you dump a cup of dog food into the dogs bowl and walk away in the morning. Those kibble bits right there are “calorie free” missed opportunities for training. You were already going to give them to your dog anyways, so why not make him or her work for them. We play “games” every morning in my house with tricks and new behaviors we’re working on. It takes maybe 10 – 15 minutes, twice a day and for Esther’s 1/3 of a cup of kibble, we get 90+ chances to practice/learn!

Q: Wait… Isn’t that like bribing? But I want a dog who is loyal!
A: Another common myth about positive training. Let’s think about this in human terms. You go to work right? Hopefully you even enjoy the work you do. Now let’s say your work decides to stop paying you. No money, no high fives, no letters or awards. They just expect you to keep coming and keep working just as hard because you should be “loyal” to company. How many of you will be looking for new work and not just because it pays the bills?

The same is true with your dog. Once a behavior is trained you won’t need to give treats all the time. In fact there are many other rewards that aren’t treats you can “give” your dog for desired behaviors. Like have your dog sit before you open a door, the reward: access to the new place/area. Have your dog do a trick before you throw a ball in a game of fetch. If the dog would like to keep having fun, or gain access to a fun new area like the back yard, they will choose to do what you ask, because it gets them something awesome!

That’s an introduction to what positive training is. All about choices and the value of reward that comes from making those choices. Most importantly these choices are free from any pain or discomfort to your dog, they are fun and make the bond between both of you strong because you do them together.

If you’d like to read more common myths about positive training methods, feel free to check out a blog by renown dog training Victoria Stilwell – Myth vs Fact

If you have other questions or comments, or myths you’d like dispelled please contact me. I’d love to hear from you!