February 25, 2018
To train: Bring (a person, child, animal) to desired state or standard of efficiency, obedience, etc., by instruction and practice.
To test: Critical examination or trial of qualities of person or thing; standard for comparison or trial.
One of the biggest problems we face as trainers taking part in any kind of competitive dog sport is to be satisfied with behaviour that is not exactly what we visualized when putting our training plan together but one that is “good enough”. The biggest problem with this is that we tend to go out into our training area and put these behaviours that are “good enough” to the test without following good training protocols. This often leads us to a place where we end up either having nothing to reinforce and end up with a demotivated dog or, even worse, punishing our dogs for their “disobedience” to the point where the dog either shuts down altogether or stops doing the behaviours that we want because it is in avoidance mode. The result of this is that we go away from the session in frustration and often in tears having damaged our relationship with our dog and created problems that are going to take a lot of patience and time to fix. Very often, rather than stepping back and looking at from the dog’s point of view we tend to put blame on our dog. He’s “giving me the finger”; or he’s being stubborn; or he’s being stupid!
I’m not saying that testing behaviour does not have a place in our training. Often the only way that we can find holes in our training is to test it. However, the test should always be set up to test the qualities of the behaviour being trained and not to make the test so difficult and outside the scope of the training that the dog is bound to fail. This will only lead to a demotivated dog and frustrated handler.
There are a couple of points that are essential to avoid falling into this trap.
- Design a training plan
- Know what YOUR dog is capable of and what stage of training he or she is at. Be aware of what tests that may be set by others during a group training session will cause your dog to fail so that you can either modify the test to suit yourself or step away altogether.
- Learn to read your dog so that when he becomes stressed or frustrated or shut down you can withdraw until you are both composed enough to continue.
- You are your dog’s advocate. Do not stand by and watch someone bully your dog.
- Teach yourself to recognise the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
- Learn about the science behind training. More and more it is just not enough to embark on a training plan without knowing why some things work and some don’t. There is a lot of information out there about Classical and Operant Conditioning. The cornerstones of learning.
- Don’t be afraid of going back a couple of steps in your training. If you do make a mistake (and you will make mistakes – we all do) do not hesitate to go back and start over. Making mistakes is part of your learning curve but don’t obsess about them. Rather than worrying about what NOT to do think about what you SHOULD be doing.
And finally, to quote Bob Bailey who has had a hand in training hundreds of animals and many different species to undertake complex tasks…
|Here is my very simple philosophy of training: THE MOST GOOD REINFORCEMENTS POSSIBLE FOR THE MOST ACCURATE AND FASTEST BEHAVIORS IN THE TIME AVAILABLE.
Putting it another way: You want to give as many trials and well selected and timed rewards as possible to shape the sharpest and most precise behavior of your choosing, within the time that is available.
March 31, 2017
One of my clients has been looking for a dog. Her needs were fairly specific as she is an active 78 year old and her husband 84. They have had dogs all their lives up to now and miss having a dog around so would love to give a dog a home. But she was very clear in terms of her requirements:
- She didn’t want a puppy and would rather have an adult dog.
- The dog needed to be one who was looking for a new home, either because the owners couldn’t keep him any longer, for whatever reason, or because he was a Rescue.
- He needed to have good manners around people as my client’s husband is frail and would not be able to handle a lively, excitable dog.
- He needed to be cat friendly.
- He needed to be calm around her grandchildren.
- As she loved walking, he would need to be able to walk with her without pulling.
- She would love a Labrador Retriever as they had had this breed in the past.
Ah, you might say, that is a tall order, and I would agree with you as the first two dogs we looked at were dogs that had been relinquished to two separate rescue organisations and were, for two very different reasons, totally unsuitable. They had very little self control, very poor manners around people, and had had no basic good manners training. Their connection with people also left a lot to be desired. They were very typical of dogs that had been acquired as puppies, given attention when they were cute and cuddly and as they got older and more boisterous, were banished to a life out of doors with minimal contact with their humans.
Sadly these dogs were just not right for my client, and after looking at many dogs that needed a home, we eventually found a dog who looked as though he was the right dog. He was calm and friendly when we arrived to meet him. Although he had very little formal training he was very much part of the family with his owner taking him out for regular walks, spending time playing fetch games (at which the dog excelled). He was very good with children although as they didn’t have a cat we couldn’t assess his behaviour around cats. I felt that this was a problem that could be addressed because of his generally calm behaviour. With this dog the characteristic that impressed me the most was the connection he had with his humans.
This connection can only be achieved if the owner spends some time bonding with the dog in terms of activities that they do together. This dog is one that would fit in with my clients.
Now, after many months, Monty has found a wonderful home with a family that love him, take him for walks and spend quality time with him, and would never give him up.
Circumstances change and I hesitate to judge people who need to re-home a dog because of this. There are often things going on in their lives that we know nothing about. But if these same people had taken the trouble to make sure their dog was socialized, had some basic training and had a connection with humans, then this would be their gift to their dog. If you apply yourself it really does not take much time to teach your dog a few basic skills and to enjoy being around humans, and just in case you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to put your dog up for adoption at least by doing this you will be ensuring that his future is secure.
February 28, 2017
One of the most enjoyable things about training with positive reinforcement is that as soon as the dogs sense that a training session is about to start, a kind of buzz happens. They can be fast asleep or lolling about in the sun, or just sitting gazing out at the garden, but as soon as they hear me getting my gear together (and they hear it – no matter how quiet I am), all of them are standing at the door, tails wagging and eyes bright. This is because they just love training – training is not a chore it is a game we play together. It gives them an opportunity to have a conversation with their trainer, to problem solve, to earn reinforcement.
Using positive reinforcement with a bridging stimulus has another advantage. It gives the dog freedom to experiment with behaviours. This is a trait that is not present in any dog that shows signs of Behavioural Inhibition. There is nothing sadder than a dog that is so anxious about doing the wrong thing that it ends up doing as little as possible. It becomes so inhibited that teaching it anything outside its experience is really difficult and time-consuming.
Some features of a behaviourally inhibited or shut-down dog would be a resistance to trying anything new or foreign to its experience. A 14 week old puppy that has been positively trained from the get-go will have absolutely no problem rapidly offering behaviours such as climbing on to a raised object, offering position changes voluntarily, readily taking food rewards, making eye contact and so on. The inhibited dog will, on the other hand, even when lured on to a raised object, will, after many, many sessions be very hesitant to try it and will often start the session simply sitting or standing and doing as little as possible. This same dog will take many, many sessions of luring the down before offering the position, and even then will lower itself cautiously without making eye contact as though not sure what the consequences will be.
It is possible to make things better for these sad little dogs.
- Identify the situation that tends to activate behavioural inhibition and avoid that situation. Change the environment. If the dog is unhappy in the area that you train, move somewhere else where the dog is more comfortable.
- Identify anything that the dog will participate in willingly. And gradually use this participation to ease the dog into working more confidently towards goals that you have set.
- Observe the dog closely and avoid anything that causes the dog to shut down. Once the dog becomes more confident these things can gradually be reintroduced.
Exercise LOTS of patience. Even a hint of frustration or irritation will lead to a shut-down dog. End the session immediately you start becoming frustrated.