Every day when I go to work, I see people’s dogs who decide that I am more interesting than their handlers are. It can be very frustrating to my clients when they are struggling with training their dog to do something and I approach and the dog will disengage from them and come to me. It can seem like the dog just doesn’t care about what their family member might want, but really does care about what I think. This can be incredibly frustrating for the dog owner. Understanding what might be happening is really helpful.
I like to think of dogs as being the world’s best mathematicians. When you get up in the morning and you ask your dog to get out of your way, and he does, but you don’t acknowledge your dog’s behaviour in any way, he takes that as a mark in the “you didn’t reward me column”. Then you ask your dog to sit by the door before you open it, he sits and you open the door and the dog makes a mark in the “you rewarded me column”. All day long, the dog is keeping track; you asked me to lie down while you picked up the papers off the floor...no reward, one more mark in the no reward column. You asked me to sit to put on the leash, and then we go to on a walk...mark in the reward column. You asked me sit for a bowl of food and I get my food...mark in the reward column. You ask me to come away from play and stop doing fun stuff....mark in the no reward column. At the end of the day, they add up the columns and work them out against each other and consider how many things they were asked to do that brought no consequences, how many things brought good consequences, how many things brought bad consequences, and how many things avoided unpleasant experiences. And then there is your dog trainer.
|Sit is a behaviour that gets a lot of reinforcement so it is a really strong behaviour and your dog will most likely do what you ask if you ask him to sit! Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
I walk up to you in your very first class and your dog tries to jump on me. Quickly, I step out of harm’s way. One to the unpleasant consequences column. The dog sits and I crouch down and greet. The dog tries jumping up again. I step away. The dog sits and I greet. The dog does the math and comes up with an interesting answer. Sitting is a behaviour that gets attended to, and jumping up loses my attention. Hmmm. Maybe this is a trick! Some dogs only have to try the equation once or twice to get the right answer. Some dogs have to ask over and over and over and over again, but they keep track, and when it comes to me, they learn that the math is always adding up to the same thing. Sitting gets attention and jumping up doesn’t.
Many weeks later, your dog has figured out a lot of things and been passed off on a variety of tasks on our chart and I walk up to you. Your dog sits as I approach and disengages from you. This often happens if the dog is in the middle of something that is confusing to him. Am I magic? No! I don’t even really have a magnetic personality. I just have predictable outcomes.
I hear from my clients all the time that they feel the need to be consistent. Consistency in dog training is a bit baffling because people are already consistent. Pay attention over the next day and figure out some of the ways you are consistent. Which foot do you put your sock on first when you get dressed? It will almost always be the same one. Which hand reaches for the cupboard door? Again, it will almost always be the same one. When you are putting your dog’s leash on, which hand grabs the collar and which hand holds the leash clip? Most people will consistently do these little tasks with the same hands or feet over and over again. We are very consistent.
Where people get confused is in figuring out what consequences they want to apply to behaviours that they ask of their dogs. And notice something about my example above. If you go back and reread, you will notice that sit gets rewarded a lot, by a lot of different things. At least in Canada where I live, sit is a behaviour that most dogs will readily offer even if you aren’t going to reward it, because sit is rewarded more often than almost anything else. We are already consistent, what we need to be is more aware of our contingencies and decide what we want to do when a behaviour happens.
What makes me a more magnetic personality is in part that I have decided what contingency I want to offer for each behaviour. If a dog jumps up, I step out of his way. I do this reliably. I am practiced at it. When I see the paws lift off the ground, I don’t have to think about being consistent because I have already decided what I will do, and I do it. If the dog sits, I greet. I don’t have to think about that either because I have decided and I am ready to do that too.
Most dogs are really good at sit because we have chosen that particular behaviour as the “please, may I” cue. If you have your leash in your hand and you don’t put the leash on until the dog sits, then you have taught your dog to say “Please, may I go outside with you?” If you are standing near the door and your dog sits, you open the door in response to his “Please, may I go out in the yard?” and if you don’t let your dog out of the car until he is sitting, you have responded to his “Please, may I get out of the car?” behaviour.
How does this apply to training your dog? Keeping in mind that the dog is a great mathematician, and he is noticing all the time what pays and what costs, you can predetermine what you are willing to pay for and what you are willing to not pay for in your daily interactions. A not very well kept secret in the world of dog training is that every interaction is a training moment between you and the dog. Often when I approach a new client, I may pull out my clicker and help with things like click and then treat. The dog notices that when I click, it causes you to treat. Many dogs must think I have some sort of magic power over you! I click, you treat. I click, you treat. The math on that one approaches 100% because if you don’t treat, I prompt you to treat. When the dog notices that I click and you treat, then when I approach, if your timing is off, or if you are clicking for random behaviours, the dog will often look at me for information; I am sure they are thinking “please, just explain this to her one more time, and then she will understand”.
Not only can I make treats come out of the dog’s human by clicking, my timing is usually better than my student’s timing. This is normal and natural; I have been professionally training dogs and teaching clicker training for almost twenty years. I see the thin slices of behaviour that contribute towards the end goal. If I am helping someone to teach their dog to touch a target, I might start out clicking the dog for flicking his eyes towards the target, where the handler might only click if the dog actually touches the target. So I am not being consistent at all; I just have a better sense of the trail of crumbs to get the dog to success. This also means that if I am helping out, the dog gets clicked and treated more often when I am there than when the handler is alone. This points to the need on the part of the trainer to understand what they are training and what the steps are to get their dogs to success.
So what is it that makes me magnetic to my clients dogs? It is pretty simple really. I have a plan for my interactions. I know what I am going to do when the dog does something. Believe it or not, dogs don’t actually behave randomly. They behave in very predictable ways. If you think they don’t, spend more time watching your dog and looking for links between events and your dog’s behaviour.
I am very aware of what the dog wants and what he wants to avoid. If the dog is jumping up, it is usually in order to greet me; they want to get up close to my face. If I step back, then his plan to greet me fails and he will try something else. Knowing that he wants to greet me, I can use his desire to greet as a reward to increase the likelihood of him doing something that I like better and that is socially more appropriate. I also know that dogs want to continue to interact with other dogs and people, that they like food, that they may enjoy chasing something, and that most of them don’t want to be hugged and a good number of them don’t enjoy being patted. Knowing these things allows me to preplan a lot of different interactions so that I control the stuff the dog wants or wants to avoid. Preplanning and awareness together make me very attractive to dogs.
When I want to teach a dog a new behaviour, I am aware of all the steps between not knowing the behaviour and understanding what the behaviour is and when to do it. When I am teaching a dog to target something, I let the dog arrive at the behaviour through a series of baby steps towards that goal. I teach the dog the pattern by capturing behaviours that happen in their entirety, such as sit or lie down, and then I manipulate the steps towards the end goal by thinking of all the little tiny amounts of behaviour that the dog does towards the end goal. If I want a dog to target a spot on the wall with his nose, then I will start by clicking for glancing at the spot, and treat away from that spot so that he has to glance back to get me to click again. Once the dog is glancing back towards the target reliably, then I will click for head turns towards the target and again treat away from the target so that he has to repeat head turning to get the click. By teaching the behaviour as a series of steps I can develop very complex behaviours such as “if I am about to have a panic attack, could you please come over here and tell me about that so I can take my medications”. Combining awareness of what the dog likes and avoids, preplanning, and divisions of steps towards an end goal helps a lot in making me magnetic towards my client’s dogs.
When you are training, you cannot suddenly change your mind about what the plan is. When I am using the clicker, I stick to the plan. I don’t click the dog for behaviours that aren’t in the plan. This is perhaps the biggest problem people have with clicker training. They change their mind about what they are working on in mid stream. If you are working on targeting and the dog offers you a down, don’t click that! That isn’t what you were working on! When you click you give the dog a unit of information that says “that thing there is what you were working on, and that thing there is part of the end behaviour”. If you click for glancing at a target but you were working on down earlier and he offers the down and you click it, then the dog will be confused about what it is that you are actually working on together.
The final part of this is that I don’t live with your dog. I am novel, which makes me interesting to most dogs. I never ask the dog for a behaviour without some sort of feedback to the dog that confirms or denies what I was asking for. I am really no more consistent than anyone else, I just know what I am going to do when a behaviour occurs. That makes me magnetic to the dog. You can be magnetic too!