For his first column of 2012, Eric Brad challenges his readers to challenge what they think they know about dogs. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people believe.” Our best source of information about dogs is the dogs themselves! Perhaps it’s time to ask them and see what they say.
A new year, for many people, means a new beginning. It’s a chance to start over or move down a different path. So I thought, since this is a time of new beginnings, that I would challenge my readers to try something throughout the coming year. It’s simple and it sounds a little revolutionary but I know from experience it can be great fun.
My challenge to you is this: Question conventional wisdom when it comes to dogs and training dog. Many of us have been around dogs and training for most of our lives. How much have you tested whatever “conventional wisdom” you’ve been working with? My biggest breakthroughs in dog training have come when I’ve chosen to test what someone in authority told me to try. Does it really work that way? Are there other ways to get there? What if I could get the behaviour a different way?
Open Minds Open Doors
There is an old saying that goes something like “If you want opinions about dogs, ask the dog trainers. If you want the facts about dogs, ask the dogs!” It was the process of questioning and watching my dogs for the answers that helped me get to a much greater understanding of their behaviour. But in order to take that process seriously, I had to be prepared to discover that what I thought I knew was either partially or totally wrong.
As it turns out, not everything I thought I knew about dogs was wrong. But a lot of it was. And not taking that personally or struggling to prove myself “right” made the learning process a lot easier. Letting go of outdated information is difficult if you don’t have some new information to help you make sense of things. If my dog is not “dominant” and trying to become “pack leader”, what is it that is motivating her? This is where a few books and websites with great information were critical in helping me change my viewpoint.
Consider The Source
There are literally thousands of books out there on dogs and training. But the few books I looked into when re-educating myself differed in one important aspect. They relied on science and a scientific approach to support the claims they were making. If I didn’t believe that my dog would respond as the books were telling me, all I had to do was test it for myself. I would learn pretty quickly if the book was based on fact or opinion!
One of the things that helped me learn about my dogs was understanding that we cannot describe how they think in human terms. We can’t do that because, well, they are not human! All we have to go by is our dogs’ behaviour to show us what is going on and that can be a process of trying something and observing the results. If that sounds very scientific, it is.
Eliminating the Unnecessary
It’s one thing to find something that works and be content with that. It can be a very different thing to keep looking at something until you not only know that it works but why it works. Many of the most valuable books I found along the way do exactly that; they talk about the process of finding out exactly how and why a particular thing works with dogs. The language of Behavioural Science provides a suitably precise glossary of terms to describe all training methods. And the best sources I’ve found can use that framework to describe detailed and repeatable processes for modifying behaviour and communicating with our dogs.
One of the concepts I discovered in my reading was something called “Superstitious Learning.” In dog training, this can mean the dog learns that something they are doing is earning a reward but it is not the behaviour we want. An example would be the dog turning it’s head as it sits and being rewarded and then repeating the head turn each time with the sit. We only wanted the sit but we got the head turn because of “superstitious learning.” So one has to be careful what one rewards because you get what you pay for!
Interestingly this concept can work in reverse. Sometimes it’s the trainer that does the “superstitious learning” by believing that one set of cues makes a behaviour work with their dog when it is really another. The story I like to tell on myself is when I tried to get my dog Tira to spin in a circle without any visual cue. One evening I proudly demonstrated my dog’s newly trained ability to spin on just a verbal cue. My wife laughed and said “You’re flicking your head.” What?!? I made a conscious effort to keep my head stone still and repeated the cue. Know what? My dog stared at me as if she had never done the behaviour.
Obviously I didn’t teach what I thought I had taught her. We went back to the training room and eventually got it right. If my wife hadn’t pointed my mistake out to me, I might have believed my dog was responding inconsistently if sometimes I flicked my head and other times I didn’t. It might have been very easy for me to just assume my dog was being inconsistent instead of me. Fortunately, by looking closer at the issue I discovered what was really going on and I could correct my own training.
Bottom Line It
So what am I saying here? Test it out. No more and no less. If something is supposed to work with your dog, does it? Does it work every time? Does it work for the reasons they say it does? What happens if you try it a different way? When you look at what you’re supposed to do, does it make sense to you? Doing something “that works” isn’t as useful as knowing why it works and being able to apply that principle to other situations.
Let me give you an example. I once attended a class where the instructor wanted us to teach our dogs to side-step towards us on command. The instructions were to hold the dogs leash behind my back and offer her a food treat just out of reach away from me. I was then to step away from my dog being careful to both hold the treat out away from me out of reach and pull toward me with the leash while offering a verbal cue. I shook my head. Where was the dog supposed to learn the side-step? I offer her a treat so she turns her head away and while she’s looking at it, I yank her sideways in the opposite direction? I was assured that hundreds of dogs had been taught this way and it shouldn’t take more than a week or two to train. Using a combination of behaviours I had already taught using clicker training, I taught my dog to side-step without the “yanking” method I was given. And I did it in 10 minutes between my first and second turn in class.
Using Your Brain and Not Your Leash
Perhaps the best thing about learning to think differently about dog training has been the ability to be creative in how I approach teaching behaviours. The highly reinforcing process of Mark and Reward training makes my dogs eager to try anything I come up with because chances are rewards will happen and certainly nothing bad can happen since we never mark errors. The ability to go to books and websites helps a lot. It can be great to see how another positive trainer approaches the problem of teaching a given behaviour.
There are many ways to train behaviours. We should feel the freedom to explore them but only if our dog is willing. If you are less focused on getting what you want and focus instead on seeing what happens, you and your dog can both learn something from training and no one has to feel stressed or frustrated.
And this goes for the well-worn cliches about dogs as well. Does using treats make your dog a “food hound”? I don’t know. Try it for a week and see! Does clicker training mean that your dog won’t perform the behaviours you train without the clicker present? Learn how to do clicker training properly and see if that’s true. Will letting your dog up on the sofa make them “dominant”? Try it and see! If you are like me, you might be surprised at how much of what you have always been told about dogs is just not true.
It can be quite an adventure for both you and your dog to go out and try new approaches to things. So ask your questions, try your “what ifs”, and explore what’s possible with your dog. It’s a new year and a new chance for new experiences and new discoveries. It’s never too late for old dogs or old trainers. I’m proof of that latter one!
Have a great 2012 and have fun with your dogs!
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