Are your dogs believers? I don’t mean do they believe in doggie-heaven or doggie-angels. Our dogs do have to have faith in a lot of little everyday things. It might be dinner time or evening walks or even the certainty of being scolded if they get caught getting up on the furniture. I think that I need to be one of those things that my dogs believe in totally. It’s a very important aspect of our relationship together. It is something I have paid close attention to developing with my dogs for many years. As a result, my dogs’ faith in me pays off in many, many ways.
It comes down to trust. Trust is a kind of faith. A faith that expectations will be met; both good and bad. Faith that things will happen again as they have happened before. Our dogs need to make sense of their world. We humans do the same thing. We need to have a certain amount of order to things so we know where to get our daily needs met. That view of the world comes from what we learn; our experiences with the things we encounter and the others that we meet. When it comes to training and working with our dogs, nothing could be more important than knowing how our dogs view the world and especially how they see us.
Skeptic or True Believer?
Dogs come into the world as wonderfully trusting beings. Once they see a thing happen, they believe it will happen that way every time. Have you ever seen someone fake out a dog by pretending to throw a ball for them? The dog will run off because everything in their past experience tells them that when they see a human make that kind of motion, it means the ball is on its way into the field. But play this trick too many times and the dog will come to doubt you.
We can’t give all the credit to just our dog’s experience. We should also take into account the “nature” side of the equation – genetics. Over the decades, we have selectively bred dogs and some breeds were selected for more or less persistence and williness to believe. So it is a complicated mix of nature and nurture that determines just how willing our dog will be to believe. It’s just a fact that some dogs will hang on to beliefs longer than others before changing their minds.
Training and faith
The most basic belief my dog will have when we train together will be in the consequences of her actions. Regardless of the training philosophy I choose, my dog should be able to trust that she knows what the outcome will be when she gives me the desired behaviour. If I use rewards, she should trust that she will get a reward and if I use corrections, that she will not be corrected for a desired response (a “correction” should mean an incorrect response).
That kind of trust in knowing what the outcome of her actions will be comes from consistency. So long as I am consistent with my rewards or corrections, my dog’s faith in me will grow. And the more faith she has in my training methods, the easier it will be for us to communicate and for her to learn. That said, training methods that involve unpleasant outcomes for the dog can create a different kind of faith. We might call it “fear” or “caution” or a reluctance to try to avoid what they see as a predictably bad outcome if they are wrong.
Training methods like Mark and Reward training add a marker signal (e.g., a clicker or a verbal “YES!”) to the training protocol. A marker is given before giving the dog their reward. In the language of psychology, this would be a “conditioned reinforcer.” It is something my dog must be taught to believe in. It is “conditioned” because the marker signal will have no meaning to our dog the first time we use it. In order for it to be effective, we have to associate the it with something we know the dog likes like food, water, or an activity they enjoy. The process of helping the dog associate the marker with the arrival of the reward teaches them to have faith in the marker signal.
In Mark and Reward training, we deliberately condition a marker signal so that we can use it later for more complex training. But our dogs can make associations with markers and signals even if we don’t do it deliberately. A common signal that dogs often pick up on is the trainer having their hand in their pocket. In an effort to deliver a reward quickly, the trainer uses the “shortcut” by putting their hand in their pocket to get the treat as they are marking the behaviour. And this can lead the dog to understand that the hand in the pocket is also a marker of correct behaviour. Can you think of any other unintentional signals your dog might believe mean something good is about to happen? I’ll bet you can!
I’ve written before about some reasons why a dog might not be willing to work for food. In a lot of cases, it can come down to faith. Does your dog actually believe that they will get a “cookie” when you say that word or reach into your pocket? Some dogs can get pretty skeptical if we are not consistent about our own behaviour when we promise rewards. You may call your dog and even tell them that you have a cookie, but unless you actually put your hand in your pocket or even show them the treat, they may stand there looking at you to see if they can believe you will give it to them.
This lack of faith can be difficult to deal with. After all, it can take time for a dog to lose faith in the little signals that tell them what behaviour is good and what is bad. Once that doubt creeps in, it can be difficult to get it rid of it. The only cure for a skeptical dog is time and consistency to help them believe again. It’s better to be aware that our dogs are always watching and be consistent with our responses than to just assume they will “figure it out” and let them form their own ideas of what is and is not true about us.
If my dog loses faith in my rewards or reprimands, that’s one thing. It can be fixed fairly easily with some good consistent work over a few weeks time. But what about all the little things we do because we don’t think about them? Have you ever been at the park playing ball or frisbee with your dog? You throw the toy and your dog brings it back for you to throw again. And then, at some random time, instead of throwing the toy, you clip on the leash and head home. You may find that your dog will begin playing “keep away” after you have played for a while. The reason is simple, he doesn’t believe you with throw it but will instead end the fun by putting them on a leash! Our dogs remember these little things. They get filed away in their memories and that helps them determine what they can and can’t trust about you. Our dogs’ faith in us does not just depend on what happens during training time. It is something they are always watching for and making their minds up about.
Levels of faith
The most basic belief I need from my dog when doing Mark and Reward training is that they believe in the reward. They need to believe that if they do the behaviour, they will get paid. They don’t need to see the reward, they just KNOW that it will be provided if they do the work. Adding a marker signal creates a second level of faith; the belief that the marker signal ALWAYS means that a reward is coming. Not sometimes, not most of the time, ALWAYS. (NOTE: It is possible to condition a marker signal that means “sometimes” or “most of the time” instead of always but that is an advanced skill)
If you are consistent enough with your dog, you will move to a whole new level of faith. Your history of living up to expectations will cause your dog to have faith in you because you keep your promises. This history of consequences helps to provide structure and order to your dog’s world. And there is a certain comfort that comes from being able to count on the important things in your world. Their faith in our behaviour can, in itself, become a reward for our dog. Just knowing they can count on us can mean a lot to our dogs.
There was a time, years ago, when I was too busy worrying about getting what I wanted from my dogs to consider what they needed from me. For all the criticism of using food treats or rewards with dogs as part of training these days, I can say from experience that it builds a bond of trust and faith in my dog. And that faith in our relationhship has carried us through lots of situations where there were no treats or rewards, just my dog’s faith that I will pick up the tab next time.
Our dogs can be faithful companions for us but we should earn that trust and faith. Give your dog something to believe in.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Photo credits –
Black Dog- Gina Spadafori copyright 2009 from Flickr
Faith – Dana Lane copyright 2007 from Flickr
Trust- Eileen McFall copyright 2012 from Flickr