Sometimes, when we think we are helping our dogs to learn, we are actually getting in the way of their success.
When you are around dogs and dog owners as much as I am, you get to see a lot of different training methods and training styles. Some of these training efforts work well and others seem to frustrate the dog, the owner, or both. Often, I would love to offer two simple words to help out in those less than successful training sessions — “Stop Helping!”
Maybe it’s because we humans are just wired to take action when we see things are not going the way we hope. Or maybe it’s because we just have limited patience in getting the results we expect from our dogs. Whatever the reasons are, our efforts to assist our dog in “getting it” when we train can often be more of a hindrance than a help.
Humans Are Fidgetarians
It is often said that the things that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our use and mastery of language. To watch most dog owners train their dogs, this becomes painfully obvious. “Good dog! Good Fluffy! Let’s try again. OK. Sit. Sit. No honey. Sit! Sit sit sit sit sit. You know how to do this. Come on sweetie. We practiced this at home. Sit for mommy.” Meanwhile, Fluffy stands there looking at mommy desperately trying to figure what all the noise is about.
By their nature, dogs are more visual than they are verbal and so pay more attention to movements than they do words. So how much more distracting is it then when “mommy” keeps waving her hands, shifting her position, pushing on Fluffy’s bum, placing her hands on her hips in frustration, or raising them above her head hoping for some divine help?
All of these sights and sounds that we think of as “helping” our dog may, in reality, simply be distracting or confusing our dog. I remember a wonderful quote from Karen Pryor at a ClickerExpo seminar in 2005, “Moving around or talking too much while training your dog is like singing in the ear of a math student while they are trying to work out an algebra problem.” Sometimes “helping” just isn’t helping!
Of Wolves and Apes
One of the interesting contrasts I always share with my students is the difference between wolves and apes in the wild. It’s an apt comparison because likes wolves and dogs, humans share over 99% of their DNA with most of the ape species. So just as we can draw some conclusions about the behavioural tendencies of dogs by observing wolves, apes can also offer us a window into our own instinctive human tendencies.
One important distinction between the two species is the ways in which they vocalize. Humans rely on vocal communication to such an extent that we have developed complex languages with extensive vocabularies. Dogs, by contrast, have a very limited range of vocal signals (e.g., whimper, bark, howl, etc.) for communicating with others.
The reasons for vocalizing also differ between species. Where humans may vocalize for pleasure in a variety of ways, dogs seem to vocalize for only limited reasons — to express extremes of pain/joy/sadness, to alert or warn, or to show affiliation. Although humans vocalize for some of the same reasons as dogs, we do so very differently.
This is where our differences can start to get us in trouble. Those differences in style can lead to some misunderstandings between species. For example, as apes grow more excited, they tend to vocalize more frequently and with greater volume and higher pitch. We all know the human equivalent of these excited tones. But dogs, on the other hand, tend to grow very still and quiet as they get more intent on things, anticipating a need to spring into action.
Monkeys Training Wolves
Both dogs and humans are significantly different from their genetic forebearers, the wolf and the ape. But many of those vocal and physical responses to the experiences and environment have remained close to our animal cousins. Watch the cheering crowds at a football game or the frustration in an artist who cannot get something quite right. You will see the ape mirrored there in the animated gestures and increased vocalization.
Not surprisingly we bring this behaviour to our work in training our dogs as well. We encourage, we cheer on, we “correct”, we suggest, we help our dogs with our vocalizing. Or at least we think so. What do our dogs make of all this?
Our dogs, like the math student Karen Pryor describes, are distracted by every movement and sound. When training, we are trying to teach our dogs a very specific behaviour. Because we don’t share a common language (we don’t even share a common sensory experience of the world) with our dogs, training is much closer to a game of charades than a human classroom. Which signals are relevant? Should the dog be paying attention to your hands? Your feet? Your voice? Your arms? When you said “yes”? When you said “no”? There can be a lot going on!
Now add to all of this our instinctive and emotional need to “help” when progress doesn’t seem to happen fast enough. We humans become more vocal and more animated in our attempts to “help” our dogs. And that can make it harder for my dog to figure out what I want from her.
Less is More
The part of our human nature that makes us so animated and talkative isn’t just distracting to our dogs, it can be misleading as well. In training, my dog is trying to sort out the stuff that has meaning and the stuff that doesn’t so she can repeat the stuff that pays off. Adding the extra words and movements just makes that job harder.
Remember that our dogs don’t understand human language. Yes, they will associate specific words with specific behaviours, but they don’t have the ability to understand sentences. So “cheerleading” our dog with “Come on Fluffy, you know this already!” or “That’s ok sweetie, just try again and we’ll get it.” are just sounds to your dog. And they have to figure out whether they have anything to do with what you are training or not!
It’s important to also keep in mind that dogs are more visual than verbal. Movements of your hands or head or even moving around them while you train can be confusing as well. Good dog trainers will tell you that dogs will learn visual signals for behaviour before they learn the words. Eliminating unnecessary movement can help your dog focus on the things you want him to learn.
Working it Out for Themselves
Humans can be awfully impatient. We like to make things happen. But in the end, our dogs are working it out for themselves. They are the ones who put the pieces together and learn what we are trying to teach them. Our role as trainers is to get them to that place of understanding with a minimum of frustration and confusion. One important element of that process is time – time to think, time to process, time to figure things out.
In training my own dogs, I’ve found that just waiting a bit longer can sometimes give my dogs time to figure out what I’m looking for. When my Tiramisu was just 12 weeks old, she just didn’t seem to be getting the “spin” move I was teaching her. While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I sat quietly thinking. Suddenly she perked up and spun in place! The penny had dropped. Sometimes all our dogs need to help them is a little more quiet time to think.
As much as we’d like to, we can’t do our dog’s learning for them. Yes, we can use prompts and rewards to guide them toward what we are looking for, but sometimes our very human desire to “help” isn’t really helping at all. The best thing we can do to help our dogs learn is to remove all the unnecessary distractions and just let them work it out. Be still, be quiet, give them only the information relevant to what you are training and wait long enough before stepping in with more help. Sometimes helping isn’t really helping things at all.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Photo credits –
Huh? – tobyrotter 2009 Flickr
Really? – darkuncle 2010 Flickr
Working it out – me’nthedogs 2010 Flickr