Melinda Benbow, Orvis Ambassador, is the owner and operator of Urban Uplander Pet Care, LLC in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Dog training is arguably the hardest do-it-yourself project known to man. If it were easy, dog trainers and behaviorists would not have to dedicate years to the study of how to work with animals efficiently and effectively. The main purpose of training your dog is to develop a line of communication between you and your canine friend. Party tricks may impress others but setting your dog up for success in this human world is much more beneficial. It is every dog owner’s ethical obligation to prepare them for the human world in which they live.
True dog training involves socializing the dog to the world around them, conditioning neutral responses to different environments while setting understandable daily expectations. There are thousands of different dog-training resources available and thousands of different ideologies that seem to contradict one another. Unfortunately, many of these resources lack the important science-based nuances needed to make lasting impressions on our dogs. Below, you will find information to elevate your basic training approach.
Before you begin working with your dog, there are basic principles you must understand for training to be productive. Understanding the basic principles of learning theory, operant conditioning, and classical conditioning will propel the work you do with your dog beyond your prior training efforts.
Classical conditioning is all about making associations—understanding that two things are linked and that one predicts the other. No matter what a dog is doing, they are always making associations, regardless of the behavior. Some things naturally trigger responses, such as when a dog starts to salivate at the smell of food or begins to shiver when it’s cold. Other associations are learned, such as your dog getting excited when you put on your shoes or when they hear the treat jar open.
Operant conditioning is consequence-based learning, in which the pleasant or unpleasant consequences of the dog’s behavior create the learning opportunity. It is broken into four quadrants, in which all animals learn:
|Positive Reinforcement is adding something to make the behavior more likely to happen. Example: When your dog sits, you give them a treat.||Negative Reinforcement is removing something to make the behavior more likely to happen. Example: You tell your dog to sit while adding leash pressure. Once the dog sits, you release pressure.|
|Positive Punishment is adding something to make the behavior less likely to happen. Example: You tell your dog to sit, and if they don't you provide a shock or a hit to "correct" the behavior.||Negative Punishment is removing something to make a behavior less likely to happen. Example: If you are playing tug-of-war with your dog and they put their teeth on your skin, then the game stops.|
These quadrants are important because they help you develop creative solutions for problems within training, which means you can adjust your training to fit your dog's needs when you are having difficulty with certain behaviors. Classical conditioning allows you to connect a word with a behavior and establish a marker word to let the dog know when they are doing something correctly. This is also where emotions get tied to places and things: a visit to the vet may create fear, a walk is enjoyable, and so on. Understanding how classical conditioning works can help you teach your dog to remain neutral in a variety of environments. You do not want your dog to be fearful or over-excited while moving through the world.
Motivation is anything that drives your dog to engage or focus on a behavior or task, and it’s the key to learning. Motivation determines if your dog will perform the learned behavior, and the biggest motivator in the environment will always win the attention of your dog. An example of trainer-created motivation is using a treat on your dog’s nose to get them to sit or lie down. Food is a wonderful motivator for dogs in controlled training sessions. When first teaching your dog new behaviors, start in a quiet, low-distraction environment. This will keep your pup motivated by you and your reinforcers.
Success is a huge motivator for dogs, as it is for humans. In dog training, “establishing operations” means that you are managing your environment to promote success. Before starting a training session, assess your environment and determine if there are any distractions that need to be removed. Pick up any toys that are lying out and put them out of sight; remove any food dishes or other pets from the area. Over the course of training a particular behavior, slowly introduce new distractions, change environments, and increase the duration of the training session. The process of advancing and shaping your dog’s behaviors with the addition of obstacles will slowly help your dog find the same success in the real world, outside of controlled situations. Remember to take it slow and move at your dog’s pace. If you are adding distractions and changing the environment and not finding success, this is your sign to back up and slow down.
To establish long-lasting behaviors and skills, you must be consistent about how you are teaching your dog. A dog must experience multiple repetitions of training to understand the specific behavior and the cue tied to it. Keeping your sessions short makes it easier for you to find consistency and for your dog to stay focused. When you’re teaching new behaviors, sessions of six to 10 repetitions three to five times should be enough. This consistency should last even after the initial training has been completed. If you have taught your dog to sit and wait before going out the doorway, you must require the behavior every time. This consistency will remove any guesswork for your dog, so they automatically know what is expected of them in every situation, which makes life a bit less stressful. For a dog to continue to understand how to be a good canine citizen in the human world, you must not become complacent about the standards you’ve set. Think of your dog’s ability to communicate with humans as a muscle. The more often you work, the stronger their ability to communicate will become. When you stop putting in the work, it becomes more challenging to communicate with your dog as that muscle weakens.
Timing is a key component of making sure your dog understands a behavior and repeats it. It is essential to mark the correct behaviors immediately to keep from marking the wrong behavior. The moment your dog performs the behavior you want, capture it by using your marker and then immediately reinforce it with food. You have no more than a second and a half to mark and reward for effective learning to take place. A delayed marker or reward can create an association with the completely wrong behavior in the dog’s mind.
The above is a “training like a pro” starter pack, but you may not want to take on the task of creating a well-balanced dog on your own. There are many benefits to working with certified professionals in your area, especially since there is still so much left to learn about the science of dog training. The assistance you and your dog need depends on what you are trying to achieve. Make sure you vet trainers thoroughly and ensure they are qualified to work with your situation. Dog training is an unregulated industry in the United States, and you must be careful with whom you choose to work. Here is a list of things you can ask to find the right trainer for you and your dog:
- Ask for a list of their educational accreditations.
- Ask for a reference list of people with whom they have worked.
- Ask about personal training philosophies and methods.
- Ask for in-person consultations and evaluations.