May 23, 2021
7 mins read
We field complaints daily from people about their dogs' behavior, ranging from the usual puppy nonsense (and no, they don't "outgrow" behavior. As a matter of fact, what is *practiced* becomes habit) to serious, if not downright dangerous displays of aggression, and everything in between.
We demonstrate how to remediate those behaviors through the practice of skills we put on cue, and harden by proofing these skills in more distracting environments. That's a pretty streamlined description of the practice we call dog -training-, but the universal high-level overview starts this way:
Teach (put on cue)
The dog is shown what we want it to do. We show the dog many times, shaping or molding the behavior before we ever give the behavior a name. We continue to practice that skill, naming it every time we mold or shape the behavior, until such a time the dog recognizes the cue and performs the behavior without mechanical assistance.
Only then do we begin proofing the behavior, by demanding the dog perform under an increasing level of distraction, and correcting for failure until the dog reliably performs the behavior without objection, in a timely manner, and to completion. Before panties get twisted, appropriate behavior is rewarded. Learning requires all 4 quadrants, not just the ones that virtue signal a trainer's particular "wokeness".
We don't just throw the dog into a situation that engenders fear or arousal. We provide them hundreds of opportunities to practice rote mechanics before we ever ask them to perform the task on demand. Even after that, we continue to create precise visual images to help the dog make the right choice.
Eventually, we are so rehearsed in our own mechanics that we reliably present the same visual image to the dog, the dog begins to generalize that cue and assume the behavior as if on his own accord.
We know it's not; not really. It's the predictability of our message that prompts the dog to respond.
When folks start assuming their dog *knows* a behavior prior to working to proof that behavior sufficiently, problems start.
Predictably, the owner stops working the dog with enough rigor to maintain the training, and the *obedient* portion of the work begins to erode.
Our mixed auditory/visual messages confuse the dog, we get angry, the dog gets worried, tries to interpret this new data, gets lost, owner gets frustrated, engages in typical hairless monkey behavior, has a Walmart hissy fit, unfairly punishes the dog for his lack of understanding, and comes away with having set an example for untrustworthy 'leadership', and a benchmark for refusal and possibly protest, in the future.
Dogs are not mind readers. They are influenced by everything we do. Their interpretation of our actions are visceral. They haven't the forethought to plan or act for a future event. They simply respond to the information we supply them at the time.
Excerpts from an old song by the Police are running through my head- "Every move you make, every bond you break, every breath you take, I'll be watching you."
We break a lot of bonds. We practice deception without realizing it, as our dogs try to interpret our intentions through our actions. We alter or outright poison the cue and the dog either misinterprets, or ceases to respond altogether.
You can always expect a dog to be honest with you. If you say "Down!" a hundred times using the same tone, same movements each time, use the same reinforcement for success and the same punishment for failure, it's fairly likely when you say it, your dog is likely to lie down.
If you say it "Lie Down!" one day, "Down!" another day, and inconsistently reinforce the right behavior, it's just as likely that you will experience a fairly high rate of refusal. If your body language is inconsistent, this muddies the picture even more, because in fact, dogs watch what we do more than listen to what we say. One has to occur in order for the other to take effect.
Not because your dog is stupid or stubborn, but because your inconsistent handling has conditioned him to refuse. When you get angry and punish your dog because he *didn't listen*, you have failed him. You have poisoned the cue. You have made it unlikely that your dog will know what to do in the future.
You may even create resentment.
If he never knows what to expect, you certainly cannot expect him to know what you want.
Clear, concise handling. Easy-to-read, deliberate auditory and visual cues, and reinforcement that provides the dog with a reason to perform is actually easy to do, but it does require a conscious effort.
Training is as much about teaching the human as it is about conditioning the dog to respond appropriately to our signals. If we do the same thing the same way, we provide a visual image that the dog associates with a specific act. If we change our signals because we are unable to remember them, are too lazy to remember them, or don't make a conscious effort to remember them, we are conditioning our dogs to refuse. Some folks call that 'stubborn'. I call it 'reinforcing for refusal'.
Years ago, I created a blog post with a video entitled "Making Coffee". I appear with my then 9 month old Pointer, Zwei, doing stuff I do, every day, 365 days a year.
It's 8:30 minutes, unedited, of me pouring myself a cup of coffee, opening a door, walking through it, walking down the hill from my back porch to my driveway, to a pile of hay bales that I direct a dog to get on and stay on, while I enjoy the coffee.
There is no leash on the dog.
There is no secure containment on the property. Alexander's elephant army could march through unimpeded.
And yet this dog chooses to stay and do things based on simple, straightforward training.
Because I expect these things outside of a training environment.
Because EVERY ENVIRONMENT is a training environment, and every opportunity is a training opportunity.
Regardless of whether or not you participate in the process, learning happens every moment your dogs' eyes are open.
We work with a lot of owners who want to improve their dogs' behavior, but have difficulty understanding that everything they do provides information to their dog. Everything. Whether they intend it or not.
If I make my dog sit every time I approach a door, eventually he's going to sit every time I approach a door, without being prompted to do so.
If I intermittently permit arousal behavior like prancing, hovering, dancing or otherwise *not sitting*, and allow the dog to pass through the door in that state of arousal without consequences, what he learns, is there is no real *urgency* to do anything the handler commands. The triad of supplying a conditioned signal for the behavior, accompanied by a well-timed reinforcer or a sufficient deterrent for refusal has not been practiced adequately to create a reliable, appropriate response.
The dog learns that refusal is an option because his owner is not sufficiently motivated to enforce the obedience each and every time he requests it.
The point of training is to be able to *use* it in ways that make our lives easier.
Pretty much daily, we see owners who don't understand that obedience isn't something you *practice*, it is something you *expect*. The walk from the front door to the mailbox should look and feel the same as the walk from your vehicle to the door to our training space, which should require the same precise execution of corrective actions as you have trained to do in practice.
Training isn't something you do once or twice a day. A training *session* is your opportunity to refine your skills so you can apply them more effectively in the real world.
You may not be training for the National Obedience Championship, but your expectations should feel the same as someone who was.
Regardless of whether you wish to compete with your dog or if you just want to take your dog with you to the kids' soccer game, that training is no different. The *practice* occurs when you apply what you learn during training, and use it during the commission of your daily life.
My expectation for my dogs' obedience looks the same whether I'm taking a dog out for his morning constitutional, getting ready to load into my truck, walk into the vet clinic, or into the obedience ring. My dogs hear these words many times a day.
What's different is I EXPECT my dogs to do these things, and I don't accept anything but their cooperation.
You never know how obedient your dog is, until you need him to be.
Train like you plan to use it. Practice like you need it.