There is something special that gifted dogs can give to humans in distress.
- Susannah Charleson
There is something special that gifted dogs can give to humans in distress.
- Susannah Charleson
As a culture, we tend to view tasks that need to be done in two different ways. There are “get to” tasks, those that we enjoy and that we look forward to, and there are “have to” tasks, which we do because they need to be done but which we don’t look forward to in the least.
This mental dichotomy starts early, and only gets more pronounced as we age. Much of adulthood is made up of “have to” tasks. We “have to” go to work, pay taxes, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, and go to bed at a decent hour so that we can get enough sleep. Those of us who are lucky also have lots and lots of “get to” tasks, but ultimately we are meant to see adulthood as quite a bit of “have to.”
The difference between “get to” and “have to” tasks all has to do with motivation. “Get to” tasks are reinforcing in and of themselves. They’re enjoyable, which is why we look forward to them. “Have to” tasks, on the other hand, are reinforcing only in the sense of relief we feel when they’re done. Finishing a “have to” task feels good, because there’s a sense of completeness. Until the “have to” task has been finished, it looms over our head.
Sadly, our society often views “get to” tasks as somehow less important than “have to” tasks. Our culture places great significance on doing the Responsible Thing, which is equated with something unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m a bit of an outlier in that my day-to-day work is made up of “get tos” rather than “have tos.” The very fact that I’m excited to start my day with blog writing, email responses, book keeping, and client appointments makes me a freak.
Dog training also tends to be divided into a “get to” VS. “have to” mentality. We want our dogs to understand that they absolutely must come when we call them, walk nicely on leash, urinate outside, and greet others appropriately. They may get to learn agility, perform tricks, or participate in other “softer” things, but basic manners training is often approached in much the same way we approach education for our children. In both cases, any use of force or coercion is justified as a necessity so that the learner understands that life is made up out of “have to” moments and that disobedience or thinking outside the box is out of the question.
But is this really the best way?
Research has shown that we can achieve our end results either way. Both the use of remote (electronic shock) collars and the use of reward-based training using treats and toys were equally effective in curing dogs of livestock chasing. Dogs trained using clicker methods are equally as reliable in performing complex service and guide tasks as those trained using traditional choke collar corrections. Children who are given a chance to follow their passion, explore their interests, and learn in a collaborative classroom environment are every bit as successful in their academic endeavors (and their careers throughout their lives) as children who are given a traditional compulsory education.
As a culture, I think it feels uncomfortable for us to explore these facts because there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance present. Growing up, responsibility was often equated with “have to” moments for most of us, and the fact that we can achieve our goals without compulsion therefore flies in the face of everything we were told. I’m here to tell you that it is possible, and it is okay if that idea makes you feel uncomfortable. Isn’t a little mental discomfort an acceptable price to pay for not having to hurt, intimidate, or compel those we love?
Reward-based training – the kind of training and behavior modification Paws Abilities employs in all of our classes and private consultations – is all about providing your dog with “get to” opportunities. It’s about building a common language between you and your dog so that the two of you can collaborate as partners to tackle any problem or challenge. It’s about joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Done well, it’s also not only as effective as any “have to” method, but more effective.
Reward-based training is the difference between a reliable recall and a reliable and joyful recall. Any training method out there, followed religiously, will result in a dog who will come when you call them away from any distraction. Training methods wouldn’t still be around if they didn’t work, so whether you use rewards such as treats, toys, and Premack moments or use a more traditional method such as a remote collar, long line attached to a metal (choke or prong) collar, or walking your dog down, regular practice and consistency will give you results.
The difference between the methods is how your dog feels at the moment you call. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement respond instantly with great joy, excited that they get to perform a recall. Dogs trained with methods based on punishment or negative reinforcement respond instantly because they understand that they have to come to prevent unpleasant consequences from occurring. The end result is the same – a dog who spins on a dime and races to his owner – but the emotional baggage is very, very different.
I want to emphasize that last point, the end result. I often hear from people who say that reward-based training didn’t work for their dog because they rewarded a few recalls with treats or toys and their dog still didn’t develop a reliable recall until they employed the use of aversives. Because “get to” moments were so rare (or even nonexistent) in many of our educations, we seem to deeply distrust them as a culture, and that shows in responses such as these. Reward-based training, done properly, absolutely works as well as compulsive training: study after scientific study has proven this. Throwing a few treats at a behavior without proofing it and building up to high-level distractions isn’t good training, and it’s therefore every bit as likely to fail as improper use of a remote collar or long line method. The problem lies not in the method itself, but in your application of that method.
The take-home message here is pretty cool, in that it opens up a whole new world of possibility. We can teach those who rely on us without resorting to force or intimidation. We can help to shape their world into one of exploration and wonder. We can transform every day into a stream of delightful “get to” moments in which they can feel fulfilled by using the skills we’ve helped them develop. We can, in fact, even do the same thing for ourselves. Adulthood doesn’t have to be about “have to” moments. Your dog’s obedience, your child’s education, and your own life can be based on “get to” opportunities without sacrificing the end results. All it takes is a little perspective, a little knowledge, and an understanding of motivation.
We’ve all known that parent: the mom who enters her toddler in beauty pageants because she wanted to be a beauty queen when she was younger, the dad who pushes his son into organized sports to relive his glory days as the star quarterback for his home team. Whether it’s theater, academics, swimming, music, or something else, we’ve known the parent who lost sight of the child in front of them as they pursued the child they had always dreamed of having (or perhaps of being).
It’s natural to dream big and to want the best for those you love. Parents dream of their children becoming the next president or the next famous chef. They look at all of the amazing potential that their child has and they want wonderful things for them. This is normal, and to a certain degree it’s healthy.
We’ve all known great parents who followed their children’s dreams, supporting their son or daughter as they explored their own interests. Whether it’s learning about cars or about horses, we’ve known parents who followed their children on paths they never would have chosen on their own, and we’ve watched as the children thrived.
We’ve also seen this same normal, healthy desire to help their children have a better life turn dark. We’ve seen parents scream at Little League umpires or require their children to practice something so frequently and obsessively that the child’s social life or rest time is negatively impacted. Just like so much in life, balance is important.
Dogs are not children. We choose the dogs we bring into our life, and once we bring them home they stay with us unless we choose otherwise. They never grow up and move away. They eat when we feed them, sleep when and where we allow them to, and don’t leave our houses unless we permit it.
One of my favorite exercises to assign to my clients is the “perfect day” thought exercise. I ask them to tell me about their dog’s perfect day. If their dog got to decide, how would he choose to spend his day? What would he want to do? Which ten activities would he include in his perfect day? Chasing rabbits? Rolling in deer poop? Playing with other dogs? Swimming? Sunbathing? Snuggling? Eating roast beef? Digging up your lawn? If your dog got to call the shots, how would he spend his time?
It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. Your dog is his own self. He has his own thoughts, likes, and dislikes. He’s aware of his world, and he perceives it differently than you, your other dog, or your previous dog of that breed. He is capable of making choices, and he has opinions about things. When was the last time you asked him what he lives for?
Here’s something to consider: dogs cannot opt out of relationships. They can check out, they can act out, but they cannot get out unless they act so far outside of their owner’s standards of acceptable behavior that they are euthanized or rehomed. They have the cognitive abilities of two- to five-year-old children, and like parents it is our responsibility to watch their behavior to learn what’s working and what’s not working for them in their world.
There’s a common recommendation in the agility and other dog sport worlds for young, anxious, distractible, independent, or enthusiastic dogs. Convention states that unless the dog’s owner is the center of his universe, their relationship is somehow fatally flawed. In order to become the center of his universe, owners are advised to prevent their dog from doing anything he enjoys that doesn’t include the owner.
If we follow this recommendation to its conclusion, it’s easy to see how it could be quite effective. If your adolescent dog loves to play with other dogs more than he loves agility, never allowing him to play with other dogs may indeed increase his enthusiasm for agility. If your child loves to surf the web more than she loves to play the violin, taking away her computer access may indeed make her more likely to practice her violin. If it’s the only game in town, it’s going to be better than nothing.
As a good parent, you might require your child to practice her violin for a certain amount of time before you let her log on to the web, and as a good dog owner you may ask your dog to do something for you (perhaps heel politely to the play area or sit and look at you) before you allow him to play with his doggy friends. Balance is important. But if you never allow your child to log on to the computer or never allow your dog to play with his friends out of some notion that letting them be themselves will harm your own goals, is that really the relationship you want to foster?
It’s normal for us to dream big, whether you’re gazing at a new baby human or a new baby dog. Both are full of possibilities, and it’s wonderful that we want the best for them. But in our quest to help those we love achieve greatness, let’s not lose sight of the individual in front of us. If you just pay attention, your dog will tell you what they need.
Layla told me that she didn’t enjoy agility trials but loves competing in rally obedience. Dobby told me that he would rather be petted under his chin than along his sides. Mischief frequently tells me that because she’s still young and learning about her world, she needs a moment to just sit quietly and watch the other dogs work in class or get used to the commotion of a new environment before she can focus on me. While their opinions may not always jive with my own goals for them, my respect for them as individuals is such that I am willing to listen, and to comply or to compromise, as the case may be. And our relationship deepens each time I hear them, and I get chills each time I learn more about the fascinating, wonderful, unique individual each one of them is. They’re their own selves, and there’s something absolutely amazing about that.
Your dog is her own self too, with her own opinions and passions. The choice of how you “parent” her is all yours. Please step lightly and choose wisely. Your dog may not be able to opt out, but she can opt in to a lifelong relationship with you. And that’s a beautiful, powerful thing.
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We love K9 Nose Work! Any dog (and any handler!) can participate, and the dogs think it’s the best game ever. Check out these great shots from last week’s Beginning K9 Nose Work class by Laura Caldwell. Want to start playing with … Continue reading
“Nine tenths of education is encouragement.”
- Anatole France
Last week we discussed the reasons behind the frustrating problem of your dog disobeying you. (And if you haven’t read that piece yet, please go read it first before you go any further. Really. We’ll wait.)
As helpful as it can be to understand the reasons behind your dog’s behavior, there are still times when it’s really important that your dog listen to you. So, how can you increase your dog’s reliability? Let’s explore two of the easiest things you can do to help your dog respond more enthusiastically, every single time you ask.
1. Train responsibly. While this was already mentioned in passing last week, it’s such an important thing that it bears repeating. If your dog isn’t obeying, give him the benefit of the doubt. Rule out physical and emotional pain first, and if you have any reason to suspect that your dog is hurt or anxious, address that problem immediately.
Remember that dogs, like people, learn gradually. If you know a situation is too difficult for the level of training your dog currently has, don’t expect your dog to succeed in that situation. Young learners, whether human or canine, deserve to be taught in such a way that they build on success rather than setting them up for failure. Gradually make training exercises harder for your dog as he gains proficiency, and help him out if he’s struggling.
2. Make it worth his while. How, when, and why you reward your dog can make or break your training. Most new trainers tend to reward infrequently, but doing so is shooting yourself in the foot.
Remember, dogs learn through repetition. The more frequently and generously you reward your dog, the faster he will learn. Make sure the rewards you use are those your dog really wants, as well. If your dog isn’t willing to work for whatever you’re offering in the moment, it’s not going to change his behavior. Kibble or even just praise may work fine to train your dog at home, but you may need to offer chicken or tuna at a busy dog event.
Furthermore, don’t limit yourself to one reward. Mix them up! In addition to food, consider using toys, play, and access to things your dog loves. If your dog lights up when he gets to chase bunnies, why not let the opportunity to move towards a bunny be his reward for focusing on you? If your dog really gets into digging, put the behavior of digging on cue and then let your dog dig as a reward for obeying when you’re in areas where it’s appropriate for him to do so. For dogs who love sniffing and peeing on every vertical surface, give your dog the opportunity to relieve himself in exchange for his compliance with one of your requests. By approaching your relationship with your dog in this way, you can develop a rich partnership in which you both get exactly what you want by working with one another. How cool is that?
Ultimately, the responsibility for your dog’s behavior falls on your shoulders. After all, you’re the one with the opposable thumbs (not to mention that big prefrontal cortex)! And that’s not a bad thing. The more you work with your dog, support him, and help him succeed, the more he’ll give back in terms of his focus and willingness to try for you.
Now it’s your turn, blog readers. How have you improved your dog’s reliability? What tips and tricks would you like to share with others? Please add to the discussion in the comments section below!
These days, most people are on board with the trend towards gentle, reward-based training. They understand that, like children, dogs should be taught new behaviors by setting them up for success and rewarding that victory rather than by waiting for them to make a mistake and then correcting them for screwing up. The use of toys, treats, play, and praise are becoming more widely accepted as research shows us that these methods are more effective than collar corrections, scolding, or physical discipline. But what do you do when your dog doesn’t comply? How can a reward-based trainer deal with a dog who refuses to listen, even when he knows what you want? Let’s explore this common problem area.
There are many different reasons why a dog might not comply with your wishes, and before we get any further let me just say that stubbornness, “dominance,” and willfulness are rarely the motivation behind your dog’s refusal to perform a well-known behavior. As frustrating as it may be when your dog appears to blow you off, it’s worth your while to take a big step back and figure out the true reason behind his disobedience.
Gaining the necessary distance can be difficult, so I often find it helpful to transfer my situation onto a human example. For example, one of the most common reasons behind “disobedience” is a simple lack of understanding. While we may think the dog knows what he is supposed to do, he oftentimes doesn’t fully understand the behavior.
Remember, learning is not linear. Just because your dog has performed the behavior successfully once, twice, or even a hundred times, that doesn’t mean he will always be able to remember what he is supposed to do in the heat of the moment.
We forget and make mistakes sometimes too! How many times have you been completely familiar with some material, but been unable to recall it when you needed it? I can think of plenty of times when I needed to remember a fact for a test at school but just couldn’t regurgitate that fact at that instance. How often have you brain-farted on someone’s name or lost a word? Dogs are smart, but don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to ask your dog to have a better memory than you do?
If your dog doesn’t obey, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you are sure, completely and utterly positive, that your dog fully understands his job. Ask yourself how many times he’s performed that behavior in this exact context in the past. Just because he knows how to sit on cue in your house doesn’t mean that he’ll understand that “sit” means the same thing at the park, the vet’s office, or even the front yard.
This brings us to the second reason most dogs appear to “disobey” at times: competing distraction. It’s harder for us to perform any behavior, no matter how well we know it, when there’s more going on. You may be a whiz at solving algebraic equations, but can you perform complex multiplication or division at the top of a roller coaster? Perhaps you’re a really wonderful driver, but does that mean you’ll always keep your eyes on the road, even as you drive past a big fire or accident? In the same way that we can forget the words to a song when asked to sing in front of a crowd, many dogs have difficulty performing when there’s more going on in the environment.
If your dog isn’t listening to you, ask yourself whether you’ve worked up to this level of distraction or whether you’re asking too much of your dog. Just as we start a beginning driver off in a parking lot, then have them drive on quiet country roads and in the suburbs before exposing them to rush hour traffic in the city, dogs need to be prepared one step at a time. I may start working on “come” in my house, then in my fenced-in yard with the dog on leash, then off-leash in my yard, then on a long leash at the local park, and finally off-leash at the local park before ever letting my dog hike off-leash. Letting him off-leash on a busy hiking trail without first teaching him a solid response to “come” in less exciting situations would be every bit as irresponsible as taking a fifteen-year-old driver to downtown Chicago at 5pm and trying to teach them to drive.
Finally, some dogs will appear to disobey because the balance of reinforcement is incorrect. You shouldn’t be surprised at this point to realize that we do the same thing. Back to our driving example, if you ask me to take a left turn but the stoplight is red, I’m not likely to turn even though I completely understand what you want me to do. There’s a competing motivation: my fear of causing a traffic accident or getting a ticket. Similarly, many dogs will not comply because they are more worried about outside consequences than they are about listening to you. I see many nervous dogs who refuse to lie down when asked because they are too scared to put themselves in such a vulnerable position. Pain (or fear of pain) can also cause this sort of response: when Layla started popping out of the agility weave poles, it turned out that she was experiencing neck pain.
Sometimes, dogs will disobey not because they’re worried about something else but because something else is motivating them more. Even though your kids love pizza, if they’re playing a video game they may become so engrossed in the game that they don’t come running for dinner when the pizza delivery person rings the doorbell. You might step out of the line you’ve been waiting in for half an hour to pick up a $20 bill you spy on the ground. As much as you love getting enough sleep, you may find it hard to tear yourself away from the Internet at bedtime. Similarly, your dog may not come when you call him, even though he’s usually quite reliable and really enjoys coming, if he’s having a blast chasing a bunny. If your young dog is busy watching another dog play, she may not be able to focus on you. In each of these cases, the fault does not lie with your dog for doing what comes naturally. Rather, you need to ask yourself how you can make complying with your wishes more rewarding for your dog than whatever currently holds her interest.
It can be enormously frustrating when your dog refuses to perform a well-known behavior. However, the bottom line is that we’re only human, and we make mistakes sometimes. Dogs are only canine, and they, too, can be fallible. Instead of punishing your dog for their failure, it’s worthwhile to your relationship, your training, and the trust your dog puts in you to give him the benefit of the doubt. Next week we’ll talk about a few practical things you can do to improve your dog’s reliability, but in the meantime, please share your questions and stories below. What situations have you initially thought your dog was being stubborn or willful, only to later discover that she had a good reason for disobeying you?
It was clear to anyone watching them that the little dog and his owner loved each other. Despite all her frustration and her ineptitude, the little dog’s owner was trying her very hardest to help him. And despite all of his anxiety and stress, the little dog was trying to work with her.
And they were failing miserably.
They had been failing together for five years. The owner would take her little dog to classes and agility trials and seminars. She went from one trainer to another, collecting a plethora of habits and ideas along the way. A patchwork of training methodologies and theories clung to her. She tried and tried and tried, and her dog tried his hardest too. And they failed, and they failed, and they failed again.
The little dog was on edge all the time. He tried to listen to his handler, worked his heart out for her really, and yet when it all got to be too much he couldn’t help lunging and barking. He truly couldn’t control it. The stress would spill over and he would crash and burn yet again. His owner would drag him away, raging and out of control.
When I took the dog’s leash in class and began working with him, his eyes cleared. His movements slowed and he started taking treats less frantically. He took a deep breath and shook off. I demonstrated the exercise for his owner, and when I went to hand the leash back to her, her little dog didn’t want to go. He tried to follow me away from his owner, and I saw the embarrassment and frustration and guilt cross her face in a raw and naked moment that broke my heart.
The owner had the best of intentions. The dog adored her. But the pure relief of working with someone who was clear with him, who listened to and respected him and his limits, and who was not themself on edge, was more important to him in that moment than those five years of pain and hard work that his owner had put in.
This is the challenge that professional dog trainers face.
Any trainer worth his or her salt can take a dog’s leash and help that dog. We can read your dog and adjust the exercise to perfectly suit his needs in the moment. If we’re any good, we can do this so quickly and make such minute adjustments that you won’t even realize that we’ve just split our criteria in half and upped the rate of reinforcement by 50%. You may not even be able to see the tiny changes in the amount of pressure we place on your dog, turning our body slightly to the side or moving a few steps away from a stressor. This stuff is automatic for us, because we’ve been doing it for years and we understand the dance that true training entails.
It looks like magic. And it’s meaningless, unless we can help you do it too.
The little dog’s owner was on edge and jumpy herself. She automatically tightened up on the leash and administered constant tiny little jerks on her dog’s collar (a technique she’d learned years ago) whenever she got nervous. The more she tried to control her dog in these situations, the worse he got. She took him to classes and trials constantly in the belief that if she didn’t continuously expose him, the little dog would backslide. She delivered treats quickly and imprecisely, not to mention far, far too infrequently to provide the amount of information her dog required to feel comfortable. Her dog was miserable. She was miserable. And they both loved each other, through all the misery and frustration.
This is the challenge of a professional dog trainer, then. Not to make myself look good, but to give you the skills you need so that you can do that too. Paws Abilities’ motto is “helping people enjoy their dogs,” and that is my primary mission as a professional trainer.
So what could I do for the woman and her little dog? Frankly, I could be kind. I could be as patient with the owner as I was with her dog. I could help her change her behavior in tiny little bits. Just as a rehomed dog with a patchwork history may take months to trust a new owner, I would never expect a client who has worked with so many other trainers to change her ways all at once, or even to trust that changing her ways was the right thing to do. Instead, I could show her the possibilities and help her set manageable and realistic goals.
Professional trainers sometimes forget that human behavior can be shaped in the same way that we shape animal behavior. If you are dealing with problematic behavior in your dog, you owe it to yourself to find a trainer who will respect you every bit as much as they wish you to respect your pet. And if you’re working as a professional trainer and cannot remember to be as kind to your human clients as you are to their dogs, frankly, you need to find another profession. The principles that shape solid animal training: shaping new behaviors through successive approximations, building solid foundational skills, adjusting our criteria based on the individual in front of us, and using a high rate of reinforcement to cement understanding, are all equally important when teaching people.
I first worked with the woman and her dog two years ago. I did not forbid her from taking her dog to classes or trials, although I gently recommended against it and commended her when she chose not to put her dog into these stressful situations. I did not yell at her when she jerked on the leash or forgot to treat her dog, but instead gave her easy suggestions to follow that were incompatible with these training mistakes. I was empathetic when she admitted that she found training frustrating and disheartening, and adjusted the exercises in the class she was in so that she would leave each class feeling joyful at the success her dog had made. And she still failed, but less often, and her dog still blew up sometimes, but less than he used to, and he recovered from these situations much more quickly. And they both learned to relax just a little bit more, and to trust one another just a little bit more.
This woman has floated in and out of our classes several times in the last couple years. She’s done some private training with me too. Recently she contacted me with a success story, and we celebrated her achievements. She still pushes her dog too far sometimes, and sometimes she forgets how to give him the information he needs. But she tries, and her dog tries, and they love each other. They’re much further along than they were two years ago, and they’ll be further still next year.
Training a dog is easy for those of us who have done it for any length of time. Professional dog training is difficult. Finding the compassion and patience to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which novice handlers can learn takes real skill, empathy, and ongoing education.
“We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed.”
-Mawhinney and Sagan