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Training 101

08/05/2016 - Behaviour Matters

As the weather starts to improve, many of us will want to get out and about spending much more time with our dogs in the great outdoors. We start allowing them much more freedom and then, all of a sudden, for many of us, we realise they are not doing what we want.

This is an extract from a conversation I had recently and one that I know will be familiar to many.

“So, what happened?”

“Well, my dog was off-lead playing at the park and saw another dog and ran over to the other dog, I called and called and he would not come back.”

“Then what?”

“Well, the person with the other dog started shouting at me to call my dog back and get him under control. I called and called as I walked towards him and even though I called, he still did not come back – it was so embarrassing. When I got there, I told him off for being a bad boy and tried to catch him to put him on the lead, this was not easy either as he kept running away from me. The trouble is he just loves dogs!

“The owner of the other dog then told me that my dog disrespects me and that I should be more assertive.”

“What have you done since?”

“I keep him on a lead now, but I feel it is so unfair as he loves to run. I also joined a Facebook group and asked for help, but it was so confusing, some said I should be the pack leader, others said I should give him treats.

“I can’t do this again, it was so embarrassing, I was given your number by a friend, please help!”

So, before I go any further, I need to point out that whatever the rights and wrongs of having dogs off-lead in public places, this is a loving and caring owner, who has asked for help and has been left in a state of confusion by the myriad of conflicting advice and opinion which can be found or is freely given. To be fair, I have seen demonstrations at country shows where the trainer is the ‘pack leader’ using his ‘energy’ to mythically train the dog, so why would she not believe that this is how it works? It may make a good entertainment show or TV programme, but that’s all it is.

Firstly, I need to put this into perspective and ask my readers, do you do everything you’re asked, immediately and 100 per cent of the time? Would you immediately leave the thing you enjoy most in life to go and do something that you dislike? What if somebody had just shouted at you and looked angry, would you let them catch you?

We also need to take into account that we are a completely different species, asking them to do something in a language that they do not understand and then with minimal training, expect them to comply.

Then, if they have done it once or twice in one setting, we expect it to happen in all settings, all of the time, no matter how difficult that is, owners may then fall into the trap of thinking they should just do it and they know what to do and when they do not, it opens up fertile ground for people to tell them that the dog is being disrespectful, dominant and blowing them off and at times, it may feel like this to you.

The reality is something quite different – dogs are normally functioning beings that are trying to make a living in the world, they are using their behaviour to produce consequences that gives them access to the good life and should those consequences turn out to be detrimental or painful, they will look to avoid them in
the future.

For example let’s look at a recall in two scenarios.

Recall 1: Dog is playing in the garden with not much else going on, you call and when your dog comes to you, you give him a really great reward and lots of it and then let them go back to what they were doing. What do you think would happen next time you called the dog? Well, we can be fairly sure that it would be far more probable that your dog would come back to you in the future.

Recall 2: Dog is running free in the park, sees another dog, runs over to play, owner calls and dog is having great fun playing with the other dog and won’t come back, owner then marches over, berates the dog and puts him on the lead and walks off. What’s likely to happen next time? Well, your dog will probably still run off and it’s going to be a lot harder to catch him.

As a trainer, my job is to change probabilities and make it more probable that when you ask your dog to do something, they are more likely to do it. To do this, we need to find what motivates your dog – what he likes and use these as rewards to pay him for that behaviour and this will ultimately make it more likely that he would do it again in the future. Would you work if you did not get paid in some way?

Very simply, dogs learn that if they do ‘X’ then ‘Y’ happens or ‘A’ predicts ‘B’ – so if ‘X’ is they sit and ‘Y’ is great food or toy arrives, your dog is likely to sit more often because something great followed them sitting. They also learn that if ‘A’ is you going to get the lead from the cupboard and ‘B’ is going for a walk, even though they may have no control over ‘A’, they notice and become excited when you walk towards the cupboard and get the lead, as it predicted a walk.

If we also think about training a dog in a similar way to how we learn a musical instrument; for example a guitar, it would give us a better idea of how much practice it takes to get good at something. When we are learning the guitar, we start at grade 1 and progress through the grades, which become progressively more difficult, until we reach a point where we are happy and consistently performing at that level. Along the way though, we will have had good days, followed by excellent days, followed by disastrous days, but over time through practice, repetition and working at a level that is not too difficult until we were ready to move on, we get progressively better and better. Had we started at the highest level, we would most likely have given up and gone and done something else instead.

This, unfortunately, is what can happen when people train their dogs, they set the level of difficulty way too high and consequently the dog is unintentionally set-up to fail and does.

So, should you be having trouble training, think what’s in it for the dog? Why should they do it?

If you are uncertain, seek out a competent positive reinforcement trainer to help you get to a level of training you are happy with.