Dog training is not intuitive, usual reactions are not training

dog (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

Dog jumps up and puts its feet on my legs and the people shout, “Down!”

Dog barks at me, the stranger, and the people shout, “Shut up!”

Dog grabs food from the table or unsuspecting hand and people shout, “No!”

So why isn’t the common reaction the best reaction? Because it punishes and punishment can suppress behaviors (yeah good right?) and at the same time cause fear, aggression, increase the unwanted behavior, cut the speed of learning appropriate behaviors and cut the willingness of the dog to learn from the “yell-er.” (boo, bad).

One of the best things about training others is hearing the words I need to hear, coming from my own mouth. And … and listening to them and acting upon them. Yes, that is one of the best things about training others; being reminded of what I know and can use and how really important it is. And this is important – punishment has lots of bad side-effects that you don’t want to have to deal with, and are often much worse than any immediate benefit it might offer.

If it is an attention-getting  behavior (like jumping on people) and you don’t like it, ignore it and it will go away because attention, any attention was what was being desired and even bad attention is a reward. Instead teach a desired behavior, like sitting to get attention – but attention needs to be given then. If the undesired behavior persists, someone is rewarding it.

Barking has varied reasons. Sometimes ignoring it – if it was attention seeking is the right response, Sometimes rewarding it – if it was the ‘warning of stranger’ bark … thanks, reward, you can relax now. Yelling at it is like you joining in to bark too, not very strategic of you. And it can make your dog much less friendly and fearful of strangers.

Stealing food (or anything) is self-rewarding and after-the-fact disciplining is an outlet of frustration for the person, but quite ineffective. Prevention and active training that food is sometimes offered after desired behaviors are performed can cancel the stealing idea. But if stealing also becomes a thrill because of the excitement it causes in the household, resolving it is more difficult.

People take what they want to out of each experience, as do dogs. I filter and remake, rearrange and dis-remember. And that is a problem and benefit – it is creativity and it makes knowing what you know sometimes more difficult. Especially after having a lot of knowledge about a subject, sometimes you forget what newbies need repeated, and repeated.

But me getting it … that is something. OK, sorry I’m self-centered, but I’m living in here. I know that I get it, then I don’t get it, and then I remember and get it again especially when I say it to somebody else. And I was trained in the reaction/traditional method, so I have to watch myself especially if I’m frustrated and have tried several different and usually effective approaches.

I see dogs do the same thing; get it, then not get it and remember and get it again. Just think of the difficulty of living in another species’ home. Especially if that other species thinks you are planning a coup. Or if that other species keeps forgetting you watch body language and don’t cue into speech that much, and they are ambiguous in body language.

Or, if as a reward, someone keeps patting you on the top of your head, which you don’t like, and saying something  unintelligible instead of giving you something you really would like. So in essence it becomes punishing to try to cooperate.

All dogs like food, but not all food, and they’re not equally food focused, but they all have to eat to survive. Food is mostly calming, getting it satisfies. But there is a “I don’t use treats to train myth out there.” The I don’t use treats but I fill the dish and put the food down and then release my dog from a sit/stay. OK so only one or two times daily is food used for a reward for something, except tricks of course.

Dogs like to play, it’s one of their best things. I’m surprised that so many people don’t have games they play with their dog. Games like tug or retrieve make relationships better, or they can.

Safety is also very important. When a dog is scared they want to flee or fight (act aggressive) or both or zone out or placate. But there is a “correction myth out there.”

Many dogs, who have people who correct them a lot won’t take food from that person’s hand (i.e. they’ll eat dog food from their dish, but not if offered by hand). Interesting, huh? These dogs often also won’t play with their people, no tug, no retrieve or only a couple of half-hearted retrieves.

If criticisms were the first thing, if scolding was the first thing, if jerking was the first thing how long would you like education? Think about it, most kids really like their kindergarten teacher, first grade, second grade ??? Maybe the criticism gets too overwhelming and knowledge isn’t that much of a reward.

How long would you work for just praise? Money stands for food, shelter, water, safety … but if you’re a dog we expect you’ll just be loyal, beholden, and obedient because we magically provide. Think again.

In dog culture there is relationship and activity rewards for certain behaviors. For dogs fulfilling their purpose like herding, hunting, search and rescue, guarding and tracking there are rewards inherent in the activity. Dog sports  also fulfill the dog’s purpose. Rewards for obedience … not so much, so people as the adopted dog society need to make behaviors that are not self-rewarding, rewarding to get them repeated.

But people see or hear someone jerking on or scolding their dog and “monkey-see, monkey-do.” So much more dramatic, a show for other people, not the benefit of the dog.

People who are jerking on or scolding loudly have badly behaved dogs, don’t copy them. Don’t copy them. Their dogs learn that if there is no ‘jerk’ or yell they must be right, instead of trying to find the thing you want in order to be rewarded for it. That’s a very different world view.

So what do you do, in the moment when your dog is being a ‘nutcase’? You can use your muscle and get some space, move them away. Far enough away so that they can listen and do what you’ve previously taught them. Their actions have given you information on what you need to work on in their training for the next few weeks or months.

But if you start yelling, kicking, hitting, jerking (or other punishing) you may never be able to resolve their fear/anxiety/reaction because you will have added pain and mistrust to the whole mix.

For example: You’re afraid of speaking in front of an audience – so your best friend pushes you, yells at you and chokes you … hmm, it will be so much more easy to speak in front of an audience next time won’t it?

Different best friend goes out there with you and has you tell them the story you were planning on telling the audience, distracting you from focusing on the audience. The audience claps to show their support and your friend smiles and congratulates your efforts. You’re still afraid of speaking in front of an audience, but not as afraid and you don’t have extra fears stacked on top.

Ah, you don’t want me to anthropomorphize? Dogs aren’t people and so I shouldn’t give them people-traits or feelings?

It’s true, dogs aren’t people, but they learn in much the same way, have similar nervous systems. And despite our need to be different from other animals, we are mostly similar. But I can’t read minds, I can empathize and guess based on body language. Scientifically, there are plenty of nasty, ethically bereft studies from the 60s that show that pain is not a good trainer and causes many side-effects.

Why then does pain and criticism have so many adherents? I think most often it’s because people just don’t know what else to do. Sad. And they think when the dog looks subdued by fear or worry that they have actually resolved something, or if the dog growls or bites back that there’s something wrong with the dog and it needs to be dominated more forcefully.

And the cycle continues.

But you can change it, rethink it, use the tools of reward-based training and be very aware of the possible fallout of criticism and punishment.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. lisalday111711 says:

    Excellent article…I too am a trainer and dogs are easy to train …its the people I am training to train the dog that can be tricky because so many of our behaviors are just automatic. Training a dog definitely requires us to relax, breathe, think and then act. This is great advice.


    1. Thanks for the comment and I like your summary -relax, breathe, think and then act.


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