Book by Liz Laidlaw
Chances are we all started out as pet owners wanting a well-behaved dog – then found out how much fun training could be as we taught our dog basic manners and more! The transition from pet owner to dog sports owner (to pet trainer to sports trainer!) is very common, and often there are some mental gaps that we need to fill as we learn the language and ideas used by dog trainers.
If you are new to training, to sports, or to instructing, then this book is the perfect place to start filling any gaps and to give you the tools you need to take on anything you wish to learn! The main goal is that you will be able to go into most other classes after reading this book, and not be surprised or derailed by any of the ideas, concepts or terminology you come across. It is not designed as a how-to guide – all the rest of the classes through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and Pet Dog Training Program will help you with that!
We will start by introducing some of the most basic science behind dog training, and how to get the behaviors you want and reduce the ones you don’t want, including the factors that impact learning. We will talk about the difference between training and management, and the concept of choice and consent in relation to dog training. Finally, we will look briefly at balancing what we want, what the dog wants, and what society expects – a critical element in ensuring positive ongoing relationships in all aspects of life!
If you come across a term you are not familiar with while working through the book, flick to the terminology guide in the last chapter to get a definition and basic explanation before you move on.
Let’s get started!
Types of Learning
The science of learning is based in the academic realm of psychology. This means that some of the language of learning and cognition is jargon that may not be familiar, or may use words in a different context to their more popular usage. Trainers tend to talk a lot about the types of training and the “four quadrants,” so we will discuss those here to get us started. The terminology guide at the end also has a longer list of terms that may come up for you.
Classical conditioning is essentially learning through association. It’s the famous “Pavlov’s dog” scenario, where something that was previously meaningless to the dog (a sound like a bell, called a neutral stimulus) is paired with food (an unconditioned stimulus that causes the dog to do something instinctively; in the case of Pavlov’s dogs, that was salivation). After this association is learned, the sound becomes a conditioned stimulus, and hearing the sound will invoke the same response in the dog that the food would have.
Here’s Julie doing the Name Game with her puppy Koolaid! Her name (currently a neutral stimulus) is being paired with a treat (an unconditioned stimulus), so that over time Koolaid will show the same response to her name as she does to the treat.
And here is a good illustration of the end result of classical conditioning. Eileen has worked hard to pair the sound of her other dog barking with food for Clara – check out her response when Summer starts barking! You can even see her licking her lips in anticipation of the food, just like Pavlov’s dogs.
In training, a comment you might often hear (originally from Bob Bailey) is that “Pavlov is always on your shoulder.” This means that even when we as trainers are focused on getting behavior through operant conditioning, classical conditioning is always in play at the same time.
This is true in more than one way; new feelings and assumptions are being classically conditioned as you train depending on how the dog experiences that training, but also all previous training experiences are a factor! The relationship you have with the dog, their previous experiences of your various moods, any history in that location or in a similar context – all of these things form the background that you are working within every time you train. Being aware of this not only helps us to be thoughtful about how we set up our training sessions, but also helps us avoid being blindsided by a dog who suddenly blows up, or shuts down, or simply leaves training.
These things can feel sudden and unexpected, but are far less so once you realize the power of classical conditioning!
Operant conditioning is learning through consequences, and through the rewards and punishments that follow a behavior. It originated in the work of psychologist B.F. Skinner, and the four quadrants that a lot of trainers talk about are rooted here.
Another term in operant conditioning that you will hear is the ABC model, or Antecedent > Behavior > Consequence, which demonstrates how operant conditioning works.
The antecedent (A) refers to whatever comes before the behavior (eg. the extended hand for a nose touch), the behavior (B) is what the dog does in response to that antecedent (eg. touch his nose to your hand), and the consequence (C) is whatever comes after the behaviour, which will act to reinforce or punish that behavior.
For a deeper understanding of operant conditioning, the Science of Training class at FDSA is an excellent choice, but for our purposes here we will simply outline each quadrant so you can see how it works. For a demonstration of operant conditioning in action through positive reinforcement, take a look at the videos in the chapter on Getting the Behaviors You Want, which illustrate the idea well.
There are four areas in the operant conditioning quadrants, based on whether a consequence is added or taken away, and whether the behaviour then increases or decreases in response.
- Positive reinforcement – behaviour increases (R) when something is added (+)
- Negative reinforcement – behaviour increases (R) when something is removed (-)
- Positive punishment – behaviour decreases (P) when something is added (+)
- Negative punishment – behaviour decreases (P) when something is removed (-)
It’s entirely possible to argue endlessly (especially in an online environment!) about whether a particular application falls into one quadrant or the other, or more than one! In the end, however, it can be more helpful to be aware of the quadrants so that we are crafting our training in a way that is grounded in an understanding of the science of how dogs learn, and then just go ahead and start training. Every dog is different, and often the most value will come from training the dog in front of you and remembering to check in to see how things are for that individual dog.
If your training is progressing nicely and you and your dog are happy and enthusiastic in your training sessions, then all is well! If you are not progressing, or if you or the dog are losing enthusiasm or training becomes hard work, then it’s time to change things up a bit.
If your training is progressing nicely and you and your dog are happy and enthusiastic in your training sessions, then all is well! If you are not progressing, or if you or the dog are losing enthusiasm or training becomes hard work, then it’s time to change things up a bit.
As students of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and the Pet Professionals Program, you have access to the amazing online communities on Facebook that can help you reassess in those moments, and think through the issue you are having. Once you have taken a class or workshop, joining those alumni groups is highly recommended – they are full of kind, thoughtful and knowledgeable trainers who are always very willing to offer a listening ear and a helping hand when needed.
Observational learning is exactly what it sounds like – learning through observation. While it is the least common in terms of how people consciously train their dogs, imitation and mimicry have been shown to work, with dogs learning new behaviours either from watching and copying another dog, or their trainer.
It is worth being aware of observational learning because, as with children, dogs are learning all the time! They watch us and learn our habits, our routines, our moods – so being aware of what we are showing them is worth having in the back of our minds.
It is also very relevant to be aware of what they may be learning from other dogs, and from the social contexts we put them in. Many a dog “learned” to be a barker at a kennel or even at flyball training! On the flip side, it is not uncommon for a braver and more confident dog to help a nervous and anxious dog to become more confident simply by watching and learning from the other.
In essence, knowing and understanding the variety of ways that dogs learn helps us to make better choices, both in our training sessions and in everyday life with our dogs.
Getting the Behaviors You Want
Probably the biggest, and most fun part of training dogs is getting new behaviours. That feeling where you and your dog are working together and communicating with each other as you try and show them what you have in mind, and they work out what we want, is often what got us addicted to training in the first place!
There are a variety of ways to get or teach new behaviours, and while each dog and handler may well have a preference as to how they learn and teach, in reality there is no right or wrong here. Sometimes, however, there are ways that will be easier, faster, or will provide more clarity for the dog – for that reason it is worth keeping all of these tools in your toolbox. As you train the dog in front of you, you might find that the way your last dog learned is a little different to this dog, and that’s fine! There is rarely only one way to get a behavior.
Luring is often where we started as beginner positive reinforcement trainers. It is a type of prompting, but for our purposes we will look at those two techniques separately. When we use luring to teach a dog something new, we have something the dog wants in our hand and we move the lure in such a way that the dog follows it and does the desired behaviour.
The classic example is getting a dog to sit using a treat.
The trainer has the treat between their fingers, shows the treat to the dog so that the dog’s nose is closely following the treat, then the hand is raised slightly up and back. As the dog’s eyes follow the treat up and back, many dogs will naturally sit to make this easier for themselves – after all they can lift their head up higher sitting than standing, so it makes sense!
In this video, the instructor is using a lure to show the dog how to lie down – notice how she is careful to keep the treat right on the dog’s nose and move it slowly like a magnet!
Luring can be a simple way of getting simple behaviours, but it also has some features that we need to be aware of as trainers which are listed below:
- Unless you want to have food in your hand forever, the lure will need to be faded and removed at some point, and replaced with a different cue.
- For some dogs, the lure is so important to them that they barely realize what they are doing with their bodies in the process of following the lure! For these dogs, you may need to switch to a lower value lure, or even consider an alternative approach to teaching that particular behavior.
- More complex behaviors, chained behaviors or behaviors at a distance can be difficult or impossible to teach using a lure. Again, this is where the rest of our training toolbox comes in!
Shaping is defined as training by “successive approximations.” This means that while we may have a picture of the final behavior in our heads (for example, putting two front paws up on a platform), in order to teach it we will break that picture down into its component parts. In that example, we might begin by marking and rewarding a look at the platform, and gradually move on to any movement towards the platform, sniffing the platform, touching the platform with one paw, etc. until we have the target behavior.
The use of a clicker is very popular in shaping, as it is a precise communication tool that can help to pinpoint for the dog the exact moment that they did the desired behavior. For more information on markers such as the clicker, see the section on clicker training. If you don’t wish to use a clicker, a verbal or other marker is also fine!
There are whole classes at FDSA that cover shaping, so if this interests you and you want to become a more expert shaper, check them out!
Sometimes the terms shaping and capturing are used interchangeably, but it is helpful to separate them since they operate differently for the learner. Instead of successive approximations, in capturing the trainer is simply seeking to “capture” and mark and reward the target behavior in its final form. For this reason, capturing is going to be applicable only to behaviors that the dog performs on their own anyway, like sitting, lying down on a mat, or even jumping up and putting front paws on a person or sneezing – if the dog can offer it, we can capture it!
Capturing also usually works best with a marker of some kind, such as a clicker. In order to get the timing right, it can be helpful to think of your marker as a kind of camera; when you can see that the picture you want is about to happen, you need to press that button to capture it!
This technique is also very useful in a more relaxed way for everyday around-the-house interactions with your dog. Dogs do what works for them, so if we can make a habit of capturing them doing the very things we want to see more of, our lives together will become much more enjoyable. A popular example of this is the “place” or mat behavior, where the dog is consistently rewarded for being on a particular mat, or in a particular location. By capturing and rewarding this desirable behavior, over time the dog will tend to choose to be in that place much more often!
A prompt is anything that manipulates or influences the behavior of the learner. Some examples are listed below:
- Gestural prompts, such as crouching down or clapping hands to encourage a dog to come to you
- Physical prompts, such as touching a dog’s paw to encourage them to pick it up
- Verbal prompts, such as the continuous “shhhhhhh” noise sometimes used to encourage agility dogs in the weave poles
- Positional prompts, such as making sure that the article you want the dog to interact with is the first one they come across
- Equipment prompts, including things like platforms
The most productive use of prompts as you progress in your training are the final two, especially in combination with shaping techniques. An equipment prompt such as a platform makes it clear to the dog where they should be, and often what position they should be in (for example front paws up on a pivot platform, or sitting on a sit platform).
With all those variables taken off the table, it is much easier for both the trainer and the dog to work on other parts of the behavior chain. An example from the world of competitive obedience is using a platform to ensure a straight sit in front when the dog comes to you, so you can focus on the dog taking the correct jump located off to one side.
Reducing Unwanted Behaviors
Even though teaching new behaviors might be the fun part of training dogs, the fact is that sometimes dogs do things that are not OK with us! As well as understanding how to get behaviors using kind and effective methods, we also need to understand how to reduce unwanted behaviors in the same way, particularly for our everyday life with dogs outside of formal training sessions. There are a number of options to consider, but it’s safe to say that for all of them consistency is the key.
We already know that dogs do what works; this means that generally, if a behavior is persisting or increasing, it is being reinforced in some way. Of course, this is not done intentionally, but it is the dog and not the trainer who chooses what is reinforcing so it can happen by mistake quite easily! Knowing this, our first job when presented with unwanted behaviors is to try and be a bit analytical and consider how it is working for the dog. As well as trying to address the underlying reason for the behavior (Does the dog feel safe? Does the unwanted behavior gain attention, food, fun or some other need of the dog?), we can try to manage and train in a number of ways including managing the situation, and training incompatible behaviors. We will also briefly discuss the other side of the quadrant: punishment – how it works and its potential fallout.
Using incompatible behaviors is a very useful way to avoid unwanted behaviors, particularly in everyday life with our dogs. The more proactive and thoughtful you are with setting up habitual behaviors that are incompatible with things you don’t want to see, the less problem solving and correcting you will need to do! For example, a dog who knows to lie on a bed in the kitchen not only stays out of your way as you work, they also cannot be doing a whole host of other less desirable behaviors including counter surfing, “helping” kids with their meals, begging at the table, etc.
It is worth thinking backwards from any unwanted behavior you are seeing, and trying to work out if there is a simple behavior you can put in place instead that will be incompatible. If a dog barks insanely when the doorbell rings, you can get a lot of mileage out of training the dog to go and grab a toy to put in their mouths every time they hear that noise!
Management is exactly what it sounds like – managing either the environment or the dog so the unwanted behavior cannot occur. Most people are familiar with the benefits of good management from when their dogs were puppies! We know that puppies have a need to chew and explore their world with their mouths, so we make sure that anything chewable is out of reach or inaccessible. That’s management.
Even if it doesn’t always result in actually training the dog not to engage in the unwanted behavior, what it does do very well is prevent the dog from making a mistake that they find reinforcing, leading to an increase in that behavior until it becomes a bad habit. Avoiding an issue is a lot quicker and easier on both ends of the leash than having to re-train it once the habit is formed!
Thinking in this way is most useful at home, but also has a definite place when out and about with your dog. We will talk more about this in the section on the balancing act of ensuring that dog, owner and society needs are all considered.
Extinction is what happens when a behavior is ignored, and is not reinforced or punished. Obviously, this will only occur with behaviors that are not self-reinforcing – don’t expect the behavior of counter surfing to extinguish, as it’s rewarding on its own!
Extinction can be used deliberately to reduce unwanted behaviors, but as trainers it is also important to know that, because the behavior only disappeared because it wasn’t working (or being reinforced), it will tend to reappear at any time if the dog deems it likely to work again. In addition, because it is usually a behavior that had previously been reinforced in some way, there can be some frustration from the dog when it suddenly stops working. This is what people mean when they talk about “extinction bursts” – it’s like that sudden escalation in behavior that you see in us, when something that has always worked suddenly stops working!
Before using extinction as a training technique, careful consider the purpose the behavior is serving for the animal. “Ignoring bad behavior” is only a good idea if you have reason to believe that it will eventually extinguish itself. For example, if your dog paws at the dog door to get it to open but you have permanently locked the dog door, then that behavior is likely to extinguish itself simply because the purpose of pawing is to open the door and pawing for the sake of pawing is not normally self reinforcing. However, if your dog is allowed to run up and down the fence barking hysterically, that behavior is not likely to extinguish if it is ignored because it is self reinforcing to the dog. The longer a self reinforcing behavior is allowed to continue without interruption, the harder it will be to change that behavior at a later time.
It is important to have an understanding of punishment, how it works and its potential impacts, even for trainers who plan to train only with positive reinforcement. It matters for two reasons – firstly, the use of punishment or coercion has some fallout, which will impact both the training relationship and other aspects of training such as the energy and enthusiasm your dog brings to the table when you train. Perhaps even more important, though, is the fact that sometimes as humans we forget that WE are not actually the ones who decide when punishment is being used … the dogs are.
Scientifically, we know a behavior is being punished when it reduces in response to the consequence of that behavior. While we won’t go into any depth about using punishment as a training tool since we have other tools in our toolbox now, it is important to understand that sometimes an outcome can actually be punishing for the dog, even if the handler did not intend it to be. As a trainer, it is our job to keep that in our minds – if we see certain behaviors becoming less frequent, then it is very much in the interests of our training and our relationships with our dogs to dig a little deeper and try and work out why! It may not be because that behavior is being accidentally punished, since there are always many factors in play including stress and extinction, but it is our cue to start thinking about what could be going on for the dog.
There are two types of punishment, both of which have the effect of the behavior reducing; positive punishment (P+) involves the handler doing something aversive to the dog in response to the behavior, while negative punishment (P-) involves the loss or removal of something the dog wants. Examples are the old school knee in the chest for a dog who jumps up on people (P+), and putting away or eating the treat that the dog would have gotten (P-).
In higher level training, the use of punishment is undesirable because of the interplay between operant and classical conditioning – as FDSA instructor Amy Cook, PhD once said, every time you teach your dog what to do, you also teach her how to feel. The dog is likely to develop a more negative conditioned emotional response (CER) to the behavior that was punished, and potentially also to the place where it occurred and the person involved. Assuming that we want enthusiastic, energetic responses from our dogs when we work together, this is not going to be very helpful! Instead, in training we can be thoughtful about how we set up our environment (the antecedent arrangements) to make it highly likely that the dog will be successful and unwanted behaviours are less likely to appear.
Handling Errors in Training
No matter how carefully we set up our training environment and plan our session, sometimes things don’t go according to plan! In general, if a dog makes an error in a known skill it is either because it turns out they don’t know it well enough in that context yet, or because something is wrong (whether a physical issue, stress, etc.). Bear that in mind as you train – think of errors in training as useful information about where your dog is at right now, and use it to stop and think things through before you carry on. Video is also incredibly useful here!
It’s helpful to have thought about possible ways to handle errors before a session begins, and there are a range of options. Once again, there is no single right way to handle errors in a training session, but here are a few ideas.
- Denise Fenzi has the best rule of thumb I know of – “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Feeling paralyzed with indecision or trying to be neutral and disconnecting from your dog are not helpful strategies; the sudden removal of our approval and engagement can be disconcerting and highly punishing for our dogs.
- Instead, you could offer some help. Something that allows them an opportunity to realize what you want!
- Reset! A thrown treat to reset can be incredibly helpful. It isn’t tied to a particular behavior so it generally won’t reinforce anything you don’t want reinforced, but it gets the dog moving again and sets you both up to move on. This is especially useful for dogs who tend to get stuck and stop moving when they are unsure. However, if you find yourself using multiple reset cookies in a session, something is not working! End that session (cheerfully!) and rethink your plan. If you don’t, then eventually your dog is going to struggle to know what earns cookies – simply existing or working towards the correct behavior? – and the handler has not learned how to set sessions up correctly.
- Reconnect with your dog. If the error involves your dog choosing to leave training for whatever reason, you have to reconnect before you can do anything else.
- Simply step in and stop the dog! This is especially relevant outside of training sessions, and in everyday life with our dogs. Similar to kids, there is no reason to allow a dog to practice behaviors that are not wanted – as we said earlier, it is much easier to avoid a bad habit than to fix one!
Other Training Concepts
If you haven’t already, you will definitely hear of clicker training being referred to within dog training circles. Clicker training is a method of using operant conditioning to teach a dog a new behavior, or to refine existing behaviors. The clicker is a device that makes a small clicking noise when it is pressed, and because it is consistently paired with a primary reinforcer (food!) it becomes a secondary reinforcer. This is useful to us as trainers, because it allows us to capture or “take a picture” of a specific action in the moment and then deliver the reward afterwards, thus making it possible to train almost anything we could imagine!
To start training with the clicker, you simply need a clicker and some treats. Practice your timing first to ensure that the sequence is click THEN treat rather than having them happen simultaneously, and then bring in the dog! Choose a simple behavior to teach first – as an example, a hand touch is a good place to start. You will have clicker and a treat in one hand, then present your other hand near your dog; no doubt they will orient to it or sniff it, which is your cue to click then present the treat. And you’re on your way! Once the dog knows that click = treat, you can get started on shaping and capturing a huge variety of behaviors.
Splitting vs. Lumping
In training discussions, the idea of splitting vs. lumping often comes up. What is being referred to is the role of the trainer in thinking through how they train behaviors, and to what extent the behavior is broken down in the training process. Any behavior can be split into smaller pieces, and this is even more true of more complex behaviors or behavior chains such as those used in dog sports. Splitting is the process of taking the target behavior and separating it into its component pieces, which can be trained individually, before putting the whole behavior back together again. As trainers, we are lumping when we do not do this – instead we are lumping several component pieces together and trying to train them all at the same time. The biggest advantage of splitting behaviors in training is that it is extremely useful in refining the behavior and even troubleshooting if things fall apart a bit; you can simply pull the behavior apart again and focus on improving the problem element, before putting it all back together again.
This idea can also apply to other aspects of training. For example, if we went to a brand-new place and tried to train a brand-new skill whilst also test driving a brand-new type of treat, we should probably expect the unexpected! Lumping is incredibly easy to do, but is generally not helpful in any aspect of our training – try to learn to be a splitter, not a lumper.
Increasingly, trainers are opting to use marker systems rather than a single marker such as a verbal or clicker. Within a marker system there might be specific markers that have specific meanings – for example it will indicate to the dog the type of reward they will be receiving as well as where the reward will be presented, such as food delivered to the dog’s mouth by hand vs. a thrown toy behind the dog. While they are definitely not required, it can help our training by adding another layer of clarity for the dog and by helping to ensure there are no disappointments. Imagine expecting a fun game of tug and instead receiving a piece of dry food! Marker systems can help to manage our dogs’ expectations, as well as allowing us to make more sophisticated use of reward placement to help our training.
Once we have a new behaviour, we need to add a cue so that we can ask for it when we want it! The process of adding a cue is usually fairly straightforward, but there are some things to remember:
- Only add the cue once you can predict the behavior is going to happen, and once it looks the way you want it to. Cues can be verbal, hand or other body signals, or even context or environment cues.
- When you are ready to add a formal cue, you need to give the cue just before the behavior happens. Over time this allows the dog to make the association between the cue and the behavior and the attached reward.
- If you give multiple cues at the same time (eg. a verbal and signal, or verbal plus a context cue such as a platform), one will likely overshadow the other. Dogs pay attention to the most salient, or most relevant cue!
- If you are adding an additional cue or changing an existing cue, the new cue must happen before the old cue for the dog to make the connection.
Fading the Lure/Prompt
When we use luring or prompting in our training, we need at some point to fade and remove that lure or prompt. In general, a good way of doing this is by doing it gradually, ping-ponging back and forth between lure and no lure while the dog gets the idea.
For example, if you start by luring your dog into a sit with food in your hand, after a couple of reps with a lure you can simply leave the food in your other hand and then make the same gesture with your original hand. When the dog responds correctly, voila! The treat arrives, apparently from nowhere. If we do this early on, the dog never learns to assume that it is only worth responding if you have an obvious treat in your hand – as trainers we want the dog to assume the reward will come, even if they can’t see it or smell it!
Fading a prompt such as a platform is a similar process. In the session where you wish to start fading the prompt, do a couple of reps with it and then throw a reset treat and take the prompt away while the dog is gone. When they reorient to you, offer the same cue as usual but without the prompt there. Given that the last few things they were rewarded for are fresh in their minds, most dogs will respond to the cue almost automatically before they have time to realize the prompt is gone! Once again it can be a good idea to ping-pong back and forth between prompt and no prompt until the dog shows that they are comfortable either way.
The concepts of chaining and backchaining come into play when we are thinking about more complex behavior sequences. A series of behaviors joined together is called a behavior chain, and within a chain each individual behavior cues the one following it. Behavior chains are common in the world of competitive obedience, where many of the more advanced exercises are made up of many different behaviors. The dumbbell retrieve is a good example of this, where on a single cue the dog goes out to wherever the dumbbell landed, picks it up, brings it back to the handler, sits directly in front of the handler and keeps holding it until the handler cues the dog to release it. As you can see, each link in that chain when completed acts as a cue for the dog to start performing the next part of the chain.
A useful way of training behavior chains is known as backchaining, which is quite literally starting from the back or final link of the chain, and working your way forwards. In the dumbbell example above, you might start by teaching the dog to hold the dumbbell, then work backwards until the whole chain is in place. One of the benefits of backchaining is that the dog is always working towards the part of the chain that is best known, which can help to boost confidence and maintain motivation even through longer chains with a low rate of reinforcement.
The Three D’s
The “three D’s” is another concept you will come across often as you train a variety of behaviors. When we are teaching most skills, we go through a similar process. First we need to get the behavior, but once that is done we need to help the dog to start building fluency and generalize the behavior so that they can do it anywhere, any time! This is where the three D’s come in.
The D’s refer to:
This usually refers to the distance between the dog and the handler.
Duration is time – the length of time the dog is asked to do the behavior for.
This is anything that could distract the dog, from food on the ground to flying birds!
Since we are big fans of good training and making sure that we split and don’t lump, we use the three D’s to help us do this. In essence it is like a three-way seesaw, and any time we change one of the D’s and it goes up to make it a little harder, the others come down and are made easier.
A simple example is teaching a dog to go to their mat and stay there. When we first started to teach the skill, we stood right near the mat, rewarded the dog as soon as they got on it, and tried to avoid distractions. Once the dog is pretty comfortable at that level, it’s time to start with the three D’s! Usually it is easiest to start changing the duration or distance element first, ping-ponging back and forth as you build each one. Want to add duration and have the dog stay on the mat longer before you reward? Great, make sure you have the distance set back at zero and stand right near the mat. Want to add distance and send the dog from a little farther away? Excellent! Dial back the duration needed and reward the dog as soon as he gets to the mat. Distractions are often the final element to start working on, but don’t leave it too long! Distractions can start easy, like a piece of paper on the mat or floor, and can get as creative and unique as you like – the only limit is your imagination.
Consent in Dog Training
The idea of consent being a part of any of our relationships with our dogs is a relatively new one – traditionally people tended to just have their own ideas about what needed to happen and how things were going to go, and the dog had no choice but to go along with that!
This was generally true both in our everyday lives with our dogs, and in our training. While we won’t go into the details of how to go about requesting consent from your dogs (there is a class and workshops for that!), we will quickly talk about why it matters and its relevance for us as trainers.
Increasingly in the modern world, dogs have very little choice in the lives they live. The changes in society and in how we live as humans are reflected in the way many of our dogs live – in smaller and more built up areas, with a lot of time alone when the family is at work, school, and the myriad of other things that take up our time. The impacts of this lifestyle change on dogs have been interesting, with some concern that the absence of choice is creating other problems for dogs including behavioral concerns and mental health issues including anxiety and stress.
It makes a difference to a dog’s wellbeing when they are allowed to have a voice, and are empowered to say yes (or no!) to things such as physical contact, husbandry procedures, and even training! Of course, when we offer a dog choice, we need to do it thoughtfully. Here are some aspects of choice and consent to think about:
- If we ask a question about consent, we need to be ready to receive either a yes or a no.
- We need to respect the answer, if we have asked the question.
- Therefore, if “no” isn’t an option, then that is not the right time to offer choice!
- In every life there are no-choice moments, and it helps the dog when there is clarity between moments of choice, and no choice.
In essence, there is huge value both to the dog’s wellbeing and to our relationship with them if we can offer choice, and have the concept of consent as a normal part of our lives with our dogs. This is merely a very surface level introduction to the idea, since it is one that can sometimes surprise people when it keeps popping up in the various classes and workshops you might attend. You are encouraged to keep learning more about how you can incorporate these ideas into your training, whether that is through concepts like engagement and start buttons or through cooperative husbandry techniques!
The Balancing Act:
Happy People, Happy Dogs,
In the individualistic society that most of us live within, it is easy to forget that there are more stakeholders involved in our relationship with our dog than just ourselves. In reality, it is at least a three-way relationship, with ourselves, the dog and the broader community all being a part of it.
The Broader Community
In reality, we don’t exist with our dogs inside a bubble. We are all part of a society that has its own ideas about how people and dogs should act – often many different and conflicting ideas! While this can make it challenging to navigate, there are some basic things to bear in mind when training and living with your dog.
The same way we try to train the dog in front of us and hear what that dog is trying to tell us, we need to try and hear what society needs from us. It is easy to assume that our own experience is reflective of everyone’s experience, but that is simply not true. Until you have lived with and loved a reactive dog, you have no idea of the impacts of other people and their dogs on a dog with a hair trigger. Until you have had a dog with severe allergies, you may not think twice about offering every dog you meet a treat. Until you have been a person with a serious fear of dogs, you cannot know how terrifying it is to see a dog running straight at you. Until you have had a dog who is fearful of people, you may assume that all dogs would want to say hi to you – you’re a dog lover, after all! As you can see from these examples, there is always likely to be things we don’t know or don’t yet understand about the people and dogs around us. This means that it becomes us to be thoughtful and careful in how we move through the world. Some examples of what this might look like include:
- Keeping dogs on lead unless it is an off-lead area.
- Recognizing that in an off-lead area, there will be loose dogs.
- When hiking, making sure your dog stays close while you pass other hikers.
- Working to ensure your dog can be quiet and calm when crated at trials or classes.
- Being thoughtful about where and when we play rousing games with our dogs.
- Choosing training locations that are appropriate and legal.
The list could go on and on, but you get the idea – it’s not about a set of rules that limit our choices, it’s about being aware of the world around you and making choices that don’t have big negative impacts on other people, or animals, or even property.
Being a Part of the Training Community
Being a dog trainer means we are part of a broader dog training community, which is an exciting thing! Like every community, individuals within the community won’t always agree on every little thing, and may even have very different ways of achieving the same outcomes. Even within the community of reward-based trainers, no two trainers are the same. While this can sometimes become a cause of heated discussion, in reality it is our diversity that makes us stronger and will allow us as a group of trainers to continue to grow and flourish. New ideas and creative ways of applying known concepts only come when trainers feel safe to take a chance and try things, assess the outcomes, and keep refining their ideas over time based on what they find. That is growth, and that is the way to a bright future for us as trainers, for our dogs, and for the dogs of all the people we can impact as we all grow and share our knowledge and experience.
Wrapping Up …
Well there you have it! You now have a good feel for many popular dog training tools and techniques, as well as a basic knowledge of the science behind how dogs learn. With this information, you are prepared to go in any direction you choose – into the excitement of competitive dog sports, the world of dog behavior, or the ever-growing need for pet dog training.
We hope to see you around at either Fenzi Dog Sports Academy or the FDSA Pet Professionals Program, but most of all we hope you are able to take this knowledge and use it to make life better and more fun for you and for your dog!
Terminology & Glossary
The way the training environment has been set up, ideally to make the desired behaviour more likely.
Anything the dog considers to be good.
Anything the dog considers to be bad.
Any action performed by the dog.
Conditioned emotional response (CER)
An emotional response developed through classical conditioning, so the CER becomes attached to the thing it is associated with.
A fancy name for learning!
Counter conditioning (CC)
A behavioral modification protocol designed to replace an existing emotional response to a stimulus with a more favorable response.
A behavioral modification protocol designed to reduce the sensitivity to a trigger through repeated low intensity exposure.
The weakening over time of a conditioned response when it is not reinforced.
In the context of behavior, this refers to a combination of speed and accuracy; the ability of the dog to do the right thing as soon as they are cued.
The ability to respond to a cue in any context.
Refers to a dog that shows an extreme lack of impulse control when greeting people.
How long it takes for the behavior to be performed after the cue is given.
The instinct to react to pressure with pressure.
Refers to the concept of using a more likely behavior to reinforce a less likely behavior; using an activity the dog really enjoys to reinforce an activity they don’t enjoy as much, and over time the less desired activity will become more desirable by association.
Something that is inherently reinforcing or desirable to the dog; common examples in dog training include food and playing with a toy.
Something that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring.
Rate of reinforcement (RoR)
Refers to the reinforcement schedule, and looks at the rate at which the dog is being reinforced.
This term is used in a variety of ways, but essentially it simply refers to a dog’s tendency to react or respond to a stimulus.
Anything the dog considers to be desirable and that can be used to reward behavior.
Where the reward is delivered, eg. behind or ahead of the dog, to the left or right, in front or beside us.
Something that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring.
Something that has the ability to reinforce after being paired with a primary reinforcer; the click or word “yes!” are common examples in dog training.
The term for when a dog exhibits symptoms of stress and anxiety when they are separated from their handler.
Anything that creates a response in the dog, whether emotional or behavioral.
A behavior is said to be under stimulus control when it occurs immediately when cued – the dog “knows” this behavior; it also refers to other elements, such as the behavior not occurring off cue or in response to another cue, or a different behavior being offered instead.
Teaching a dog to touch a target with a part of their body; the target may be a part of the handler such as their hand, or it could be another object such as a target stick or even a Post-It note.
The point where the trigger is strong enough to cause a reaction.