Cause-Effect, dog training-learning with games

So you want to train your dog? And you want them to really be able to do things with you.

The most common system used is telling them what not to do. No, eh eh, bad! Over 65% of people reporting on how they trained their dogs said this is what they used. Unfortunately they also reported poor results in getting their dogs to do eight common things (walking on a loose leash, always coming when called, etc.), so bad that it was a negative correlation. In other words, their dogs didn’t know how to do things with or for them.

What’s surprising is I think you would say that you learned from experiences, wouldn’t you? What is driving the continued verbal shaming? maybe the immediate slinking or worried look? The thought of the next time is too – abstract? It’s easy to think/see what the dog is not supposed to do, harder to think about what they actually should be doing and remember to reward it (instead of not noticing).

Out of the same study there was a group that used food rewards for training things and a smaller group that used games/toys. The result? A positive correlation with the things the dogs could and did do.

So here are some key points I would like you to think about:

  • telling someone not to do something is not the same as training them to do something
  • slinking and looking worried are a response to expressed anger, shaming is not a good teaching model and it has a bad effect on the other things that take trust for the dog to be willing to do.
  • dogs believe in cause and effect too, but the action they do must be right at the same time as the effect (reward) if you want the fastest training. One second later reduces an understanding of what is being rewarded, this is why a sound (click) helps so much.
  • dogs have good memories but are a different species, so our cultural norms are not their cultural norms – there is no particular reason why they would automatically know our rules. And using the English language to explain the rules to a non-English speaker – not effective.
  • responses to a dog’s unwanted behavior (barking, jumping up, pulling…) by doing something they like (giving them attention even bad attention, going forward, letting them outside, giving them a toy, chew bone…) means they are being trained to do more of the unwanted behavior. However, setting them up with a toy, chew bone to prevent an unwanted behavior is just good management.
  • Sometimes (or variability in) offering the reward is the most effective way of making a behavior persist (i.e. dog is scratching on the door, I don’t like it so I ignore it for two minutes, but then I start to worry about the finish on the door so I complain while I open it and let him in or out – voila I’m teaching persistence! at scratching the door. Or dog is barking outside and after 10 minutes I start to worry that the neighbors will complain so I go outside, yell ‘quiet’ and then play to get him tired – voila, dog will bark longer and longer in the future on the chance that it will get me out there). But this system works for them doing the right things too, it’s just that the right things are usually quieter and often are overlooked and not rewarded.
  • the things the dog goes crazy over are the strongest things to use as a reward because the wish to have or to do will make the contingent behavior worth the effort. However letting the high arousal go on for long cycles without balancing in control will make it harder for me and more stressful for him. Example: dog loves playing tug so I just play tug and they get more and more wild playing. If I want to use the tug game (and I think I should) then once they like the game it needs rules – sit to start, verbal cue to “tug,” reasonable game (5 – 15 seconds), sit or down to end, release and restart as a reward … cycle again and as many times as I wish … put other training in between cycles. Or a good retrieve, starts with a sit, dog waits to be released to get the item, goes out gets it, turns immediately and runs back at same fast speed, sits, releases item on cue.

    Jazzie speedily pushing the red ball.
    Jazzie speedily pushing the red ball.

I saw another article recently about too much of a good thing. It was talking about dog games that the dog just got extremely excited by and about limiting the times per week that they got to do those things. Limiting times is a management strategy, but it’s not a training fixing strategy. I suppose I could keep them away from the things they love to do, or just dole them out infrequently for a lifetime.

The thrill of the hunt.
The thrill of the hunt.

Certainly, while I’m working on the dog’s ability to listen while aroused by a game, I need to limit those games where the dog is completely out of my sphere of influence and only play them in a small area for a brief time. Or if I have a frisbee or a ball fetching or coursing or doggy playing with other dogs or agility fanatic dog that just wants to keep going and going and is demanding about it, then start putting in extra behaviors before they get to do the thrill of the chase – like sit, down, touch, figure 8 around my legs, stay while the item is tossed, do other things despite the ball being out there in the field – and I will have an amazingly well-trained dog, plus their frantic compulsion towards frisbee or ball games or playing with other dogs or doing obstacles will ease.

How? Usually I train at transition points first, like when I’m wanting to release them from their crate or kennel or go through doorways. The door/gate stays closed or re-closes if the behavior like sit or down isn’t offered and maintained. When it is offered then open. It becomes their idea because that’s how it works.

Since transition points occur lots of times during each day there is lots of training on control behaviors the dog needs to offer to get what they would like to have and the cause (them sitting or downing and maintaining that posture) is rewarded by open sesame door, gate, or crate.

The extra benefit is a calm, quiet dog expecting freedom to play. The easy part is that the door/gate is the barrier, it’s not me trying to stop them it’s just a piece of the world.

When I start putting in a behavior before they get to do whatever it is they love, I expect some complaining and some efforts to steal or whatever – I just wait, hide the toy, control access – silent, just like at the door/gate until they offer up what has been previously trained in a lower arousal state. They will do it, patience is a virtue, then be fast and give them what they want for brief fun, then repeat. Later, as they learn the cause-effect pieces better they will become more and more willing to do the get-ready work … because they get paid by their loved game.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Harland says:

    It’s very good to see this useful post on dog training.
    I have a question though. How do you train a younger dog?


    1. Sorry I didn’t see this, it ended up in my spam. But the answer is even very young dogs … 5-8 wks old can start to learn games – tug, of course its quite gentle and brief. Come very short distances for food. Retrieve very, very short distances (6 inches to a foot) for play. The games get more complex, and the distances greater as the dog matures. Puppies love to play and play should be the reward for learning, so they do something you like (example sit) then cheer and start a game of tug, stop the game and wait for a sit, then cheer and start the game again.


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