All Dogs Deserve An Education - Give Them Something To Bark About!
“My dog doesn’t listen!” “When I say ‘come,’ she runs the other way!” “He comes in from a walk and sneaks out of the room to poop where we can’t see!” Are these dogs disobedient? Defiant? Stubborn?
What is “obedience”? Should a dog do what I say, no matter what? Do I want my dog to show me when there’s a problem? Will I pay attention to what the dog is trying to tell me? Is it the dog’s responsibility to obey me? Is the dog my servant, my partner, my family member, my friend, my burden or my hobby?
You will determine your own beliefs and goals with your dogs. For the sake of discussion, let’s view the dog as a companion. It’s your legal responsibility to maintain the dog in a way that humanely meets the animal’s physical needs and keeps other people and animals from being harmed. If you want to train the dog for a sport, a task, or a job; your basic legal responsibilities remain.
Controlling a dog requires both management and training. The needed management increases when the dog has a temperament more likely to cause harm to others. The more training, the easier the management becomes.
There are various training philosophies and techniques. Good trainers and handlers skillfully read dog body language, time their own communications accurately to help a dog understand, and maintain realistic expectations for training.
Some dogs require an especially talented trainer in order to be safely maintained. Certainly we each need to choose the right type of dog for our own level of ability.
So, how do we get it all together to have a dog who does listen, who responds positively to our cues, and who feels comfortable behaving naturally around people?
Dogs can learn all sorts of things, but they learn much better when we first figure out what we want to teach them. You need a plan.
Training goals involve everything from where you want your dog to eliminate to whether you want to campaign this dog as a top conformation special, or go out on search and rescue missions. There are many jobs, sports, and roles for dogs.
The dog will also have a lot of “off duty” time. Every decision-making adult in the household needs a voice in determining the household training goals.
Effective Learning Principles
Training done well from the start makes the most efficient use of your time, and results in a dog with more consistent success and more confidence. The dog has a good time as do you, and you both look good doing it!
1. The dog needs the right foundation to “learn to learn.” This includes the skills basic to almost all training, such as controlled walking with you and coming when called. The dog also needs socialization at the proper early life stages in order to be able to cope with work situations later.
2. You need to develop as many ways of rewarding the dog as you can. These include food, games (retrieving is number one), physical stroking, praise, rides in the car, walks, time with a special toy, and particular things the dog likes or wants at that moment. Some dogs enjoy howling with you, for example, and some handlers find tug of war to be appropriate.
3. Training that extends over a longer chronological time seems to create longer-lasting learning. One reason for this would be that the training experiences become connected in the dog’s brain with a greater variety of other experiences, such as changing seasons, different clothing on the humans, different times of day (example—early morning tracking in summer, afternoon tracking in winter), and many other differences we could never think to plan.
5. Training requires an adequate number of repetitions of the experience for the particular dog. Some dogs require only a few repetitions, while others may require many. There are advantages to both. Obviously the one who requires fewer repetitions could be easier to train, but only if all the experiences you provide the dog in training are accurate.
If you train badly, the dog will quickly learn the task differently than you intend. The dog who requires more repetitions will learn the task more slowly and you may get some chances to notice your mistakes and adjust the training before it becomes set in the dog’s habits.
6. Dogs learn best in a mental state of play, with stress kept low. This is true of humans, too, and you can see it in play of both puppies and children. Play is their work! A good trainer remembers that training and work need to be fun for the dog, just as a good employer of humans has to remember that the employees have their own motivations, many of which will be different from the employer’s.
You need to find out what your dog (or human) trainee desires, and help him or her achieve that desire in doing the task you need learned and performed. Creating such win/win situations is the smart and humane way to train.
7. It takes repetition of the training in a variety of settings before the dog is able to generalize that when you give that cue, you want that behavior in all settings. This process gets faster as your dog learns more and more cues. When you start by teaching your dog basic control work and social skills, you can then take your daily training sessions into a wide variety of settings and carry out this training principle without extra work.
8. To teach a dog to perform a task correctly, help the dog get it right every time. There are various ways to approach this. One way is to break the task into tiny parts and teach them to high precision individually before putting them together. Another approach is to provide the dog with handling support and direction to closely guide through the task. Gradually eliminate the extra cues as the dog forms the habit of doing the task.
Sometimes trainers set a dog up to make a mistake and then correct or punish the dog for that mistake. A risk here is that the punishment might be too severe for that dog, or it might accidentally become associated in the dog’s mind with something you did not want to change. You might cause the dog to distrust you, to lose desire to attempt that task, or to get sidetracked into self defense. Thus, practicing success is more likely to train more quickly and with less risk of undesired effects than practicing failure and attempting to teach through corrections.
9. Keep sessions short enough that the dog is never the one who wants to quit first. End on something the dog does well. Releasing into an activity the dog enjoys is a good way to keep the activity level up for high-energy tasks. If your goal in training is a calmer dog, it may be preferable to follow training with a calming grooming session or other quiet activity.
10. Some dogs are capable of accepting decision-making responsibility, and some jobs require dogs who can do that. First you train the dog to good habits, to patterns of behavior desirable to you because they make the dog more reliable. You continually reward the dog for trying, being careful never to discourage a dog from effort by correcting a dog who makes an honest mistake. Mistakes made by dogs in training are almost always honest ones.
Dogs who don’t do what you want are either confused about what you want or they are just acting on their own instincts of the moment. Rarely does a dog act out of “defiance.” That’s a human motive. When we penalize dogs for acting like dogs because we interpret it as coming from motives on which humans act on but dogs do not, we do them a grave injustice.
With the right genetic gifts, a suitable belief system from good experiences, safe habits from skillful training, and a talented handler, something happens in many dogs that is beyond explanation. They learn to think, to make decisions, and to act responsibly as the handler’s agent when they are in possession of information the handler is not. We find examples of this in the guide dog with a blind handler and in the dog performing a scent task with substances that humans cannot detect.
Mentally, these dogs take wing and fly. We don’t understand it, but we’ve learned to recognize it when it happens, and we know a lot of ways to facilitate it.
Fitness Report for Learning
Dogs instinctively hide any sign of weakness with the result that people often can’t believe a dog is hurting when in fact the pain is severe, constant, or both. Dogs who experience pain or discomfort from doing what we ask develop problems with training, behavior, and even temperament.
Besides illness or injury, dogs can have physical difficulties learning particular tasks at particular times due to normal physical states. In these situations you may well be able to constructively work with the dog, but toward different goals.
Training requires first, throughout, and afterward meeting the dog’s physical needs. Just as a school child needs to eat properly and get adequate sleep in order to do well in class, good physical caretaking is part of your responsibility in training with your dog.
Let’s look at some physical things that affect a dog’s ability to learn what you wish to teach:
1. The dog needs to be physically and mentally mature enough for the task you are teaching. For example, a puppy is ready for play-retrieving at a young age, but teaching the dog to hold the item and then walk while carrying it should wait until perhaps six months of age or older.
Puppies are learning all the time and you certainly want to structure that learning toward your goals. By keeping it age appropriate, you will actually make faster progress with the puppy, and the mature training will be much more reliable than if you push a puppy too young.
2. Old-age changes in sight, hearing, and mobility mean you need to change what you ask of a dog. An old dog can begin training for the first time if the training is carefully matched with the dog’s abilities. The same is true for a dog disabled other than by age.
All dogs need the communication with humans that comes through training. Training any dog is a creative process, and each dog is different. Dogs develop habits and beliefs from dealing with the world around them, and you can structure those habits and beliefs with thoughtful handling.
Training can happen just from handling done consistently until the dog routinely does what we want. Old and disabled dogs benefit as much if not more from this than canine athletes. You greatly help prepare a dog for old age or potential disability by teaching loose leash walking, stays, signal cues, positive conditioning to human touch, and interactions with humans that keep all four dog feet on the floor.
3. The dog’s genetic behavior plays a major role in how that dog needs to be trained. Is this a dog who is distracted by fast-moving objects, or one more distracted by smells? Is the dog highly sensitive to touch? To sound?
Does the dog have a genetic problem that would cause pain or predispose to injury from certain tasks? If so, the training precautions needed may range from careful tracking for that problem to completely ruling out that type of training for that particular dog.
If a human in pain chooses to work in spite of it, that is an informed decision. A dog isn’t capable of that decision because the dog can’t be informed. The handler is responsible for protecting the dog.
4. A dog who is ill or injured needs to be rested according to medical advice. Don’t expect the veterinarian to remember that you train this dog in agility or search and rescue or other activities, or to know exactly what work that involves the dog performing. Always specifically ask the veterinarian if the dog is well enough to do the work, and explain what the activity entails.
Even if the veterinarian says it’s okay, pay attention to your own instincts if you sense the dog should not be working. Commonly you realize after talking to the veterinarian that there is a part of the job you forgot to mention and it’s more risky than the things you remembered when you asked. Properly resting your dog makes for more successful physical healing and also protects the dog’s working attitude from being damaged by experiencing work with pain or sickness.
5. Hormones will at times severely distract a dog from work. Some working dogs are kept intact because their genetics are important to a bloodline. These dogs need to be working, in order to prove their abilities that can be passed on to their offspring.
Female dogs in heat may be experiencing substantial physical symptoms, and can be a problem around other dogs unless those dogs are under control. If you are going to work the female but she isn’t being bred on this estrus, check with your veterinarian about odor masking. Chlorophyll tablets can be helpful. Watch her carefully for infection and of course get her immediate veterinary care if that is suspected. Make any work you do with her easier than normal, to keep up her good attitude about work.
Male dogs around female dogs in heat, especially intact males, deserve extra handler help, too. They need the experience of working in this situation, while remaining under handler control rather than running crazy.
It can be difficult for an intact male to work around an enticing female, but you never know when you will encounter one. You may be unable to control your male dog unless you have practiced this successfully together. You can sympathize with the dog’s physical discomfort and give him plenty of support to get the work right, while still keeping him at it.
6. For any training or work session, make sure your dog has eliminated, eaten the right amount for level blood sugar but not bloat, is cool enough, has adequate rest, etc. One thing food trainers will be interested to know is that a dog does not need to be food-deprived in order to work for food rewards.
If you need a dog to be able to work in spite of physical discomfort for emergencies, build this ability over time rather than pushing. When the dog has learned the work so that the rewards you use and the task itself are strongly motivating, that persistence in the task will grow organically and be far more reliable than if you try to force it. The dog will be pulling forward to be allowed to keep working, not being pushed by you.
7. Pain and fear need to be kept out of dog training. Dogs are wired in such a way that they may experience more suffering from fear even than from pain. You need to be the one your dog can count on to relieve pain and fear, never to cause it. What the dog feels is part of who that dog is. Just as it’s not helpful to say a human “shouldn’t” be afraid, the same is true of a dog.
You can change a dog’s fear thresholds by gradual—and occasionally even rapid—behavior therapy to improve the dog’s associations and beliefs about that experience.
Example: Dog fears garage because something crashed in there and made a bunch of noise. Human takes dog’s next few meals into garage to feed. Done immediately after the fearful experience, this may rapidly rehabilitate that fear. But if several experiences over a period of time have frightened the dog in the garage, it will likely take longer and more repetitions of positive experiences to rehabilitate the dog.
The rehabilitation is probably more thorough when done quickly after the bad experience, too. Perhaps this happens because the fear associated with the experience has not yet been filed as deeply in the brain. You have to read the dog well and time the rehab right to make this work. Too much too fast will stress the dog more.
Learning for Life
In dog training, as in the rest of the world, we have theories. Sometimes it seems a theory is right because we act in ways we believe are based on the theory and we get results that please us.
In truth, we don’t know much about how dogs think. Some of our theories seem to explain things, until someone else comes along with a theory that seems to explain things better—and until more “things” become evident that need explaining!
We have good evidence that a dog’s temperament, ways of perceiving the world, and health are largely (probably mostly) genetically determined. A human made the decisions that led to the genetics. A human chose to adopt the dog and controlled the early life experiences. A human (you?) is the trainer. Nothing wrong with a dog’s behavior is ever the dog’s fault. The dog doesn’t deserve the label “disobedient.”
Good dog trainers keep thinking, learning, and developing their physical timing skills. When training is done well, dogs enjoy continuing to learn. Provided they feel well enough, dogs can learn throughout life. They can learn about ways to cooperate so you can help them feel better even when they are quite ill. You may call it obedience, communication, partnership or operant conditioning. Whatever the terminology, lifelong learning is healthy and satisfying for both humans and dogs.