Make a Tail Wag

You may remember that we asked last week for a few suggestions on some posts… and boy, did you guys deliver! Some of you had some questions about our pups specifically, while others were looking for some tips on training and behavior.

I want to preface these training posts by reminding you that I DO NOT by any means consider myself to be a professional. Because of that, I want to start by talking about some important terms in regards to dog behavior and training, as well as what you should be looking for in a dog trainer or obedience instructor. Whether you have come across some challenges, simply want the reinforcement to make sure you are taking the right approach to manners, or are interested in pursuing advanced training such as agility, it is important to choose a trainer that suits your needs (and your pup’s!)

However, even if you are not looking for a trainer to aid you in your training adventures, these points still exist as guidelines for what I consider to be the best approach an owner could take to training! More importantly, they are my ‘bible’ when it comes to my own approach with my own dogs. If you are interested in the training advice I will be offering, these methods are the backbone to all of the specifics.

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Training Methods

I strongly believe in force-free training. In fact, that is the only type of training that I tolerate with any animal. You may have previously heard this referred to as ‘positive reinforcement’ training, which is actually not accurately inter-changeable, but nor is it always incorrect.

There are four basic types of training methods, that any professional trainer should be able to use correctly.

1) Positive Reinforcement

2) Negative Reinforcement

3) Positive Punishment

4) Negative Punishment

What do those terms mean to you? If you take them at face-value, then you are probably not correct.

First, we must define the term reinforcement, which is simply something that results in the continuation of a previously displayed behavior. It does not necessarily mean a “reward” or something that the dog enjoys, but it is something that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be displayed.

Positive reinforcement (1) simply means that you are ‘adding’ something to the training equation, in order to elicit the desired response. An easy example of this would be that when your dog is lying down quietly on her bed, you could offer her a treat. Yes, this is a positive experience for the dog, but that is just coincidental… for example, dog fighters often use positive reinforcement, by adding aggressive dogs to the scenario, which will increase the likelihood that fighting will occur. (Positive Reinforcement: Adding something to continue the behavior)

Conversely, negative reinforcement (2) training does not automatically refer to abuse or aggression. It simply means that something is being subtracted from the equation. So, for example, if a dog is wearing a gentle lead halter, the behavior of walking by your side is being reinforced, because the pressure is removed when they do so. (Negative Reinforcement: Subtracting something to continue the behavior)

Then, there is training that revolves around punishment. However, this also does not mean that the experience is automatically unpleasant. It simply means that you respond to your dog’s unwanted behavior by doing something which causes your dog to decrease that act.

An example of positive punishment (3) (applying something that will decrease the behavior) would be the utilization of a shock collar. When the dog barks, the collar shocks the animal, and he therefore associates barking with pain… which is supposed to decrease the barking (at least, when the dog has the collar on, right!?) No promises that your dog won’t try to run from you, or even become aggressive, when you attempt to place the collar on them, however… (Positive Punishment: Adding something to decrease the behavior)

A quick example of negative punishment (4) would be that when your dog jumps on you, you turn your back to her, which is meant to result in her no longer jumping. You have removed attention for a decrease in her unwanted behavior. (Negative Punishment: Taking something away to discourage the behavior)

*It is important to note that the terms ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ have nothing to do with the dog’s perception of the training experience, but with whether you are adding something or taking it away. Similarly, reinforcement is not always enjoyable (though it can be) and punishment is not always painful or unpleasant (though it can be).

Quick chart:

What it means What it does not (necessarily) mean
Reinforcement Results in continuation of behavior does not = a reward
Punishment Results in extermination of behavior does not = pain or aggression
Positive Adding something does not = enjoyable
Negative Taking something away does not = painful or unpleasant

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Force-Free Training

Force-free training is a separate category entirely, which refers to the approach the owner takes in all training endeavors. It is training that refrains from using fear, intimidation, or force to manipulate the dog, physically or mentally. An emphasis is placed on the dog’s body language, as well as communication, and the human-animal bond.

Most often, those that believe in forceful training methods believe that animals have no emotions. While many of us may recognize that animals do not experience quite the range of emotions as humans (although, I understand, this is debatable!) we recognize that fear, excitement, loneliness, and loyalty are traits that animals can exhibit. If we look at animals as being devoid of emotion, we begin to look at them as mere machines, able to bend at our will and whim… and you can see why it may become easy for some people to inflict pain in order to effect their desired, and oftentimes more immediate, outcome.

The approach I bring to dog training comes from extensive experience with horse training. While we would use mild tools such as bits and spurs to communicate with our horses, these are only used as an extension of our arms and legs. However, less admirable riders and trainers would continue to advance to more cruel and severe tools when their horses did not respond in a way that they were seeking. There is a big difference between spurs with little rounded rubber ends, and spurs with sharp, jagged rowels. Personally, if my horses did not respond accordingly to my requests, I would first look to myself, rather than simply resorting to more severe tools … obviously I was not communicating my requests clearly. I learned early in life that animal training is pretty similar, regardless of species. Unfortunately, the humans involved are also similar, and when they lack in communication skills and understanding of behavior, they quickly resort to physical brutality and emotional intimidation…. AKA, they become big bullies!

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Do you want your dog to listen to you because they trust you, and know that you will reward them for their positive behavior? Or would you rather that your dog listens to you because they are fearful and intimidated? To most of us, it is obvious that we want our dogs to be happy and content. However, there is more to it than that. Fearful dogs are often more erratic and unstable than those with an established relationship of confidence in their owner. It has been shown that forceful training methods lead to aggressive animals. A confident dog that has built a good relationship with their handler will often look to the handler when faced with an uncertain setting, whereas a dog that is fearful will take that situation into their own hands, and make a choice to either fight or flee. In many cases (such as an animal that is in a kennel or leashed) the dog may not have the option to flee, and by training him to be afraid of you, you have therefore shown him that his only option is to fight. Your goal should be to make yourself the happiest and most exciting part of your dog’s life, while remaining a consistent and safe place for them. If you can achieve that, I can guarantee that there isn’t much your dogs wouldn’t do for you!

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Trainers that we would advocate would never support shock, choke, or pinch collars, or other devices that utilize pain. When faced with negative behaviors, they will usually ignore them, or remove something that the dog considers to be pleasant. They focus most on rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviors. Typically, trainers that advocate force-free training use lots of food for reinforcement, but the most skilled trainers will also reward the dogs with other things, such as play-time, toys, attention and cuddles. It is important to find out what works best for each individual dog! In our household, Tonka is all about attention, while Gaige responds best to play time, and of course, Gia is always interested in snacks. If I only used the same reward for all three of our dogs, our communication skills and advancement with training would most likely plateau.

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Individualized Approach

Along those lines, it is important that your trainer evaluate you and your dog individually, and formulate an approach that works best for your team. I have a frustration with trainers that try to take the same cookie-cutter approach with every dog. Even if the trainer is knowledgeable enough to only employ force-free training methods, it’s not enough if they expect the same exact training process to work for every dog… or, for that matter, every owner! Always be open-minded enough to take queues from your dog… watch their body language closely, embrace the communication signs they offer to you, and go from there. Use what works best for the two (or more!) of you, as a team. If you are paying someone good money for training tips, then they owe you an individualized approach… otherwise, you could get all of your information from this blog a book! Seriously though, your pup will thank you for it, and you will get a lot more knowledge for your money.

Real-Life Training

Finally, it is vital that your dog trainer understand that a dog requires consistency in training. This means that rather than just set ‘training sessions’ every few days at home, and/or once a week at their facility, they should help you set up your life so that it is one constant training session! Your dog should learn that rewards for good behavior can come at any time, not just when on a leash, at their center, or focused on the treat in your hand. This way, they learn to remain focused on you at all times. Examples of this would be teaching your dog to sit before being let outside, leashed, or given their dinner, or rewarding them when they choose to lay quietly on their bed, as opposed to begging for food or pestering guests. Play-time can be a great way to work in training, while exercising and engaging your pet… make them sit quietly before you throw that ball! For most of us, our initial goal with our dogs is to teach them to be happy members of our family, as opposed to teaching them parlor tricks.
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While this list has not been all-inclusive, by any means, it should give you a good guideline when seeking an appropriate dog trainer… who, remember, you are essentially paying to instruct yourself as the owner! However, please remember that these are the guidelines I try to hold myself to when working with my pets, so even if you aren’t seeking a trainer at this time, they may still apply to you!

In summary, you should look for these qualities in your dog trainer (even if that trainer is you!):

1) They are knowledgeable (and certified, if you are paying them as a professional trainer). They can use the below terms correctly:

-Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus to reward a behavior (giving a treat)

-Negative Reinforcement: Removing something in order to encourage the behavior to continue (pressure on a gentle leader releases when dog is in proper position)

-Positive Punishment: Adding something to discourage a behavior (shock collar that hurts the dog when he barks)

-Negative Punishment: Taking something away to decrease a behavior (turning away when your dog jumps on you)

2) They believe only in force-free training methods. They will use food as a reward, but not as the only reward, and will never resort to inflicting pain or intimidation tactics. They will emphasize the building of your relationship with your dog, so that the dog develops confidence in you as a capable, fair, and loving leader, and begins to look to you in new situations, as opposed to being aggressive or reactive.

3) They look to the dog, utilizing his body language and communication signals, and teach you how to be aware of the same. While they are methodical, they may take a slightly different approach to training each dog, so as to find a method that will be most rewarding for all involved. They do not have a blanket approach that is hard-and-fast with all dogs and owners, because they understand that all dogs are different.

4) They teach you how to encourage good behavior in your dog every day and in every scenario, not just to elicit parlor tricks during specific training sessions. This is because they will understand the importance of a dog that is eager to learn and obey at any time.

Now that we’ve shared with you our foundation for training, tune in tomorrow for answers to some specific reader questions!

3 thoughts on “Make a Tail Wag

  1. Brilliant post. You put this together extremely well and I hope a ton of people read it. I bet your dogs are one happy, happy bunch. You are so right about finding your dog (and your own) motivators. Litchi is not at all food orientated, so I’m always having to get creative in terms of rewards.

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