I often get asked what is my dog training “method”? Is it reward-based, positive, dominance, science-based …?
How I train a dog
I want to reply that it’s a bit of science, a bit of fun, and a bit of making it up as I go along.
Science-based dog training
… but the question probably means “do I use dominance-based or science-based training”?
That’s an easy answer since dominance-based training is really just mumbo-jumbo!
Punishment and / or reward
Once that question is out the way the next question might be, do I use reward, punishment or a combination of both to train dogs?
The answer to this question could be a little more confusing since the science of behaviourism allows for the use of punishment to change behaviour!
A brief history of dog training science
During the development of Psychology, experiments on animals established that if you provided specific consequences (rewarding or punishing) to a behaviour then the behaviour may increase or decrease in future. The science of behaviourism was born. It did little, however, to consider what the animal was thinking or feeling since it only considered the behaviour.
Understanding what an animal is thinking (cognition) is very difficult (even in humans) and what it is feeling even more so.
Modern Psychology not only studies behaviour but also cognition (perception and processing of information “thinking”) AND emotion.
Considering emotion is important because it is a factor that influences behaviour greatly in both us and our dogs.
How would you feel…
Imagine you try to learn a totally new skill, especially something you don’t have a natural aptitude for (e.g. dancing or a new language). You go to the first class, the teacher asks you to lead with your left foot or to conjugate a verb. You lead with your right foot or get your verb endings wrong.
How does your teacher respond? How do your feel? Embarrassed, angry, defensive, frustrated?
What is your dog thinking and feeling
How would your emotional state affect your next attempt? Would you even come back to the next class if you had a bad experience?
Now imagine you are training your dog to sit. The dog has learnt this perfectly in your living room. At the roadside you ask the dog to sit but he doesn’t do it even though he knows how to. Why not, and what do you do next?
You could push your dog into position or yank up on the lead. Did that work? Yes!
It sounds like you have just used pain or discomfort to train him to sit by the roadside. But… what about his emotions?
The question should have been why did the dog sit at home but not at the roadside? At home he had practised sitting many times and hopefully been rewarded for it with treats, toys or even just a happy “good boy”. He also faced few distractions and hopefully felt safe at home. Outside there are other considerations. Cognition being the first. Could he hear you properly over the traffic noise? Were you standing by his side rather than in front of him like you do at home? These “perception” factors make the task much harder for your dog.
The second consideration is emotion. Is your dog fearful or perhaps just overwhelmed by the sight and sound of the traffic as you ask him to sit by the curb? Misunderstanding your dog’s emotions at this point is likely to lead you to feel frustrated and emotional yourself. Take a step back and think about why you dog is not doing what you asked. He may have understood what you wanted but is his emotional state preventing him from responding as you wanted?
So, what would I do in that situation?
I refer you back to my training method of “…. a bit of making it up as I go along.”
Be adaptable! In this case I might simply ask the dog to sit a step back from the curb to give him space from the traffic. If that doesn’t work, I might practice on a quiet street with no traffic. If that doesn’t work then perhaps the behaviour at home was not as good as I thought it was so I would go back to practising there first.
Don’t assume that if your dog does not respond as you want, he is being “stubborn”. He may not understand you or may be stuck in an emotional state.
Using punishment may worsen your dog’s emotional state and cause him to lose trust in your relationship generally. He may then shut down and become reluctant to try new things.
I set up Rainbow Dogs in 2004 and started studying for a degree in Psychology as a mature student soon after.
I use science-based and reward-based positive training methods since they work whilst keeping your dog in a healthy emotional state.
I try to consider the thoughts and feelings of my clients as well as their dogs during my training sessions.
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Mike Garner is a dog trainer and behaviourist at Rainbow Dogs in Brighton & Hove, Sussex.
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