So many options


There are so many options in building a training program for a certain wonderful dog. I had a very nice woman say she would just like to know exactly what to do and not have so many conflicting suggestions.

I smiled and said I’m sure you would.

So is there an absolute formula, a recipe – like for oatmeal cookies? I was quite the baker as a middle schooler and one time I forgot the flour; there was enough other stuff to keep them together, but very thin. My mom served the cookies for her ladies party and said they were lace cookies…to oohs and aahs.

There is an ideal, a theory of training method, a science behind learning and behaviors. And then there are strategies that fit into that theory and strategies that don’t. Just like oatmeal cookies.

All things repeat behaviors that are rewarding or beneficial in some way to them. All things avoid behaviors that are not reinforcing to them. If they didn’t they wouldn’t survive. So this is an over-arching theory.

Rewarding what you like increases the behavior you like and improves the relationship. Punishing/correcting decreases a behavior you don’t like, but may also decrease behaviors you do like and hurt the relationship. Our culture has a long history of over-emphasis of correction and punitive responses so an over-emphasis of positive rewards is reasonable (since we are raised biased towards the negative, the reaction, and reacting takes less planning).

Cause and effect, nature offers both positive and negative, and so do we, whether we intend to or not. And with each interaction, since there are at minimum two parties interacting – one doing, one receiving – intentions are not always received as they are intended. This part is the experience, art, reading of the situation between two species that makes a recipe for what to do hard to offer. What is obvious to someone who knows body language of another species may be totally unnoticed by someone who doesn’t.

To cut the options, I figure out what I really want. If I know what I want I can pro-actively reward pieces of it from the start. And the pieces may be just little glimpses of the final thing, but little pieces can be built upon. I manage and prevent behaviors I would rather not have (crates to prevent in-house debacles, leashes to prevent in town problems). I use things to bridge the gap between not-knowing and disaster, and competency on my and the dog’s part.

If I just keep figuring out what I don’t want and correcting those issues, I end up with a very worried dog who: despite being the species who most wants to do things with people – wants to do stuff away from me, or doesn’t do much with me and is hesitant or unwilling to try things, or is like ADHD or chews everything or runs away or doesn’t come…’that stupid dog.’

An ameliorating feature may be doing something the dog was bred for, like hunting or pulling or retrieving or herding or tricks…these kinds of things can off-balance a lot of negativity because dogs really want to do them and if they can, that may put the scale back into the positive relationship side for you.

Maybe the reason people say that little dogs are so much more moody than large dogs is that little dogs often don’t have anything they’re bred for other than companionship, so if the relationship isn’t going well, what do they have?

So if someone suggests stepping on the hind toes of your dog to dissuade him from jumping up…is this a good idea? Would it build trust in the relationship or distrust? Would it help you to get him to want to try things with you or make him question? It would hurt him when he wanted to be close to you, is that good? It wouldn’t show him what you wanted him to do, but it would maybe suppress a behavior or get him to jump at you when he was close enough or stay away from your feet. Your choice?

What would I do? Well I’d do target/touch training so he went to my hand, which means he’s not jumping up. I’d reward sit in so many instances that it was a default behavior. I’d ignore initial jumping up (really ignore it) so there wasn’t a reason to continue that behavior. I’d prevent jumping up with a leash or holding his collar for other people who have flapping hands and coach them into lowering a hand for a touch and if he was solid on a sit cue I’d use it. My choice.

This is almost the end of the second week that I have had ‘Obe’, the great Doberman I’ve been training. We’ve progressed from loud barking, whaling, and pummeling the crate to crazy-fast crate games. He still will mutter a bit and pop a paw when he thinks I’m closing him in for a longer period, but we’ve practiced to get that knee-jerk reaction to disappear and I do that by moving the door a bit and if he doesn’t react at all he gets his dog food (I’m hand feeding him all his food). Then repeat. If he does react he gets nothing and we try again…with a jackpot handful for stoic, non-reaction.

This week I was increasing the variety of things he’s rewarded for and clarifying what he does with cues…so kennel up means go in, break means come out to the nearest reward…etc. Before he was just offering things like sit, down, touch, come, get it and I was rewarding the ones I liked. Once I knew what he would offer consistently I started naming it and not rewarding unless I asked for that specific thing.

We’ve added some time (duration) and some distance…upstairs, downstairs, around corners…so he couldn’t always see me. We’ve gone to be observers at an agility practice. Other people there were only seemingly training their dogs on the agility floor. I put all the training into rewarding sits and downs on a pad I brought, while other dogs barked, whined and ran the course.

He’s not solidly staying in just one spot yet, but he’s quiet, not reactive to dogs running right in front of him and willing to down, sit, and wait briefly. He ate his dinner there in measured bits for each correct response. We spent a little more than 30 minutes. Soon he’ll be solidly lying there while watching…a very nice behavior to have.

Body awareness is important in a rapidly growing dog…where are his teeth, where are his feet – especially hind ones and so the tug games continue and are refined to include the other cues for start and end and restart. The balance and walk on a plank, negotiate stairs in all directions are being played with rewards for efforts. This important stuff really improves movement and capabilities.

He’s getting to be the good catcher with a certain suave aspect.

But would these things necessarily be the things you want from your dog? Or is it like the Farside cartoon where the dogs are digging under a fence on a hill overlooking other dogs and people in an obedience class…”why don’t they teach something useful for a change?”

What are the things that are extremely useful for you? Why do you have this dog? What things would your dog love to do? How could you blend these things?

My favorite oatmeal cookies have dark chocolate chips, walnuts and craisins, are slightly crispy with a warm, moist, chewy center. What about you?

Oatmeal cookies with orange zest, golden raisi...
Oatmeal cookies with orange zest, golden raisins, and chocolate chips. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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4 thoughts on “So many options”

  1. I loved your point that leaning toward positive is so important because we, as humans, naturally lean negative. That’s so true and what a great way to put it! I never thought of it like that, but it really does make a ton of sense!

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