Often, people ask me why training their own dog takes so much longer than when a professional trainer does it, and why, even after training, does their dog tend to listen to the trainer a little better than themselves? After all, they’re following the rules, they got a dog training book, and they’re writing down everything Caesar is saying – so what gives?
The answer, I’m afraid, is not sensational or magical. Sure, we as dog trainers may have a little more patience with dogs, and after a while, the physical parts of training simply become muscle memory, but is it dog whispering? Do we possess some rare, uncanny ability to communicate with dogs? Far from it.
The secret to good dog training lies in following three simple principles –
Timing – We’ve all, at some point, gotten home later than expected to find a cold, wet mess on the floor, and a dog who looks less than proud of himself. Often, we take that to mean that he understands he did something bad. That may be true for a dog who is already well potty trained and just couldn’t hold it, but for a dog who isn’t yet familiar with the concept, chances are, they’re just reading the subtle changes that occurred in your body language when you noticed the mess.
Dogs live in the moment. A dog only has about 1.3 seconds to associate an action with a consequence. Within as little as 5 seconds – your dog may as well be hours past the point of being able to associate a cause with an effect. You’ve probably heard or read that you must “catch your dog in the act” to effectively correct them for pooping or peeing in the house – the same is true for every other undesirable behavior.
Consequences don’t necessarily mean punishment. There are good consequences, too. Whether it’s positive or negative, however, it must happen immediately. But if you’re using leash and collar correction as a consequence, you’d literally have to be The Flash to get a collar and leash on your dog in 1.3seconds, right? That’s where using a marker comes in handy. Teaching your dog to associate the word “no” with a correction that comes right after, can buy you some time. When your dog understands that the word “no” comes right before a correction, you’ve made a promise to your dog that a correction is on the way, and he will associate it with whatever he was doing when you said it.
A clicker is also a marker. Those complicated dog tricks you see on cute youtube videos are usually accomplished by using a clicker to piece together a behavior, by instantly marking whenever the dog is moving in the right direction. In that case, the clicker is a promise for a reward. So whether you’re teaching something new or trying to get rid of an old habit, remember – your dog needs to know within a couple seconds whether his behavior earned a correction or a reward.
This brings us to our next principle
Consistency – In order for training to stick, there can be no exceptions or gray areas. Once a rule – always a rule. This can be more difficult than you think. We all want our dog to be polite and not jump on our guests, but we all have that friend or family member who “doesn’t mind”. This isn’t to say your dog can never jump on anyone ever again. Most of us love to have a dog in our lap once in a while, but we can’t leave it up to our dog to decide when it’s appropriate to do so.
If you’ve set a negative consequence for your dog jumping up uninvited, that consequence needs to happen every single time without fail. If the consequence isn’t consistent, your dog will most likely continue to jump up on guests, but he may also develop some anxiety as well, because he is being punished at random for a behavior that sometimes results in a reward.
If the undesirable behavior is actually something you like once in a while, the best solution is to teach that behavior as a command or trick. This way, if your dog is corrected for jumping on someone, he will understand that what he was ACTUALLY corrected for was jumping the gun and offering a behavior that no one asked for.
The third principle is, perhaps, the most important.
Motivation – Now that we’ve established that our dog gets a reward for good behavior, and a negative consequence, such as a correction, for behavior we don’t like, we must make sure that our dog agrees that the reward is good and the correction is unpleasant. If our consequences are too neutral, our dog may not understand the difference between the two. Our consequences MUST be motivational.
Let’s say your dog, despite being friendly, just isn’t really into physical affection or petting. There are plenty of dogs who are like this from birth, and others, including many rescue dogs, who simply have a bad association with peoples hands. If you’re teaching a dog like this to sit, a pat on the head or scratch behind the ears won’t really motivate them to keep sitting for you. You need to spend a little time figuring out what your dog likes. Maybe it’s a treat, or a few seconds of tug-o-war. Whatever it is, it must be motivational.
The same goes for correction. I’m always pleased when my client’s biggest issue is not correcting hard enough. That shows me that they’re genuinely concerned about upsetting their dog, and that they don’t get any joy out of yanking a dog’s leash, and it’s something we can work through with a little coaching. When the correction isn’t enough to make the dog rationalize that “this behavior I enjoy isn’t worth the consequence that comes after”, the correction is ineffective.
In good dog training, it’s usually the little details that matter more than broad, sweeping theories offered up to us in books and tv shows. Timing, Consistency and Motivation can help you succeed whether you’re using classical conditioning or purely positive methods, but they take time and practice to master, and while it’s not a secret, and it’s not magic, reaching out to a patient trainer who adheres to these principles will give you an edge when it comes to training your dog, and help you feel more confident about the way you’re communicating with him.
Cerberus K9 2016