There is a thought that frequently runs through my head while I watch people trying to train their dogs at the local parks. And that thought is – “That thing you are doing? I don’t think it is doing what you think it is doing.” It could be any behaviour or any kind of training or any kind of dog. The handler waves and talks and encourages and cheers and yells and the dog, well the dog eventually ends up doing something that seems to satisfy the handler. What seems painfully obvious to me is that the owner thinks their dog understands what they are trying to teach them when clearly they don’t. It just looks like they do.
Dogs are remarkably observant creatures. They are constantly learning. Even if we are not intending to teach them anything. Dogs constantly seek what works; what will succeed for them. Sometimes they are trying to get a reward and sometimes they are just trying to avoid a punishment. Modern behavioural science has explained a great deal about what motivates dogs to act as they do and canine learning theory can show how and what our dogs learn. But as a dog trainer, I need to be aware of these things or I may get very unexpected and inconsistent results.
Know who the fool is
Richard Feynman was arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential theoretical physicists. In addition to his contributions to science, Feynman offered a piece of advice that I think is incredibly relevant to both scientists and dog trainers alike – “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be careful about that.” Whether it is cognitive bias, selective attention, errors in pattern seeking, overshadowing, or one of the many other tricks our brain can play on us, it seems like an almost constant battle between seeing what is really going on and seeing what I want to see in my dog.
When Tiramisu was just a puppy, I was encouraged by some online discussions and seminars to start using a video camera when doing my training. Using video revealed in unvarnished, excruciating detail who the “fool” was in my training room. The number of things I thought that I was doing or was certain that I wasn’t doing that showed up in the video truly shocked me. What using video taught me is that my dog learns exactly what is being presented. It doesn’t matter what I think I’m teaching, the results speak for themselves and if they are not what I expect, then I had better look at the trainer (me) and not the dog for the answer.
Sweating the small stuff
In training dogs, like many things in life, the devil is in the details. Our dogs are keen to succeed and they watch every detail to give themselves every advantage in getting to the reward or avoiding the punishment. It could be something as small as fumbling for a treat reward or being a bit too enthusiastic while prompting a behaviour. In other cases it can be our inability to control our all-too-human emotions like being disappointed that something didn’t work or too excited that something unexpected happens. Our dogs see it all and try to make sense of it as best they can. Their reactions can be very different from what we intend.
One funny example of this comes from the agility world. There is a technique that is taught by some that the trainer should always toss the reward out ahead of the dog after completing an exercise. The idea is that this expectation that the reward is directly ahead will develop the dog’s focus to be forward rather than turning back toward the handler at the end of an exercise. I have seen more than one handler inadvertently teach their dog to hop slightly into the air at the end of an exercise as they anticipate the reward flying over their head before landing in front of them. Interestingly, the “hopping” behaviour often remains after the trainer stops tossing it as part of training!
Another more common example happens with dogs doing the “Sit” behaviour. Try this experiment with a friend’s dog sometime – stand directly in front of the dog and bend at the waist. In my experience, at least 7 out of 10 dogs will sit. Now the handlers have never taught the dog to do that but it is common for us to bend at the waist to hand the dog a treat! We think that the dog doesn’t notice the bending but, for some, it becomes a totally separate cue. The trouble is, if the bending happens as part of bad timing or sloppy training, it’s possible that the dog will not sit UNLESS you bend at the waist! Imagine the frustration of the trainer who hasn’t realized that their dog has made this connection. Sometimes they bend and sometimes they don’t because it is an unconscious act and so the dog sits sometimes and not others. What is the trainer going to think of this? That their dog is stubborn, distracted, or worse? More often than not, the trainer can find the answer in their own actions.
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Dog training in the 21st century is a lot like an all-you-can-eat buffet. If a particular training technique isn’t helping you to get the behaviour you want, simply find one of the hundreds of other methods available. It seems like everyone has their own special recipe for getting your dog to do that behaviour you are trying to train. We live in an age of instant results and, sadly, that’s what most dog owners are seeking. But just because a particular training method can get your dog to do the behaviour you want, your dog may not have learned it the way you think he has.
One common method for teaching a dog to sit asks the handler to press gently on the dog’s rump to encourage them into a sit position. If the dog learns to sit using this method, did they learn to “Sit” on command or did they learn to avoid having their rump pushed after hearing “Sit”? For many dog owners, the answer would be “Who cares! He’s sitting!” But if the dog doesn’t like being physically pushed, what if they start watching so they can avoid other times when you might put your hands on them? Perhaps they will start avoiding physical affection or learn to keep their distance so that they cannot be touched. So, yes, you taught the dog to “Sit” but what else have you taught them?
One of the down sides of all of these training choices is that it can be all too easy to jump from one method to another if we don’t get results fast enough. But what does this teach our dog? Well, for one thing it can teach them that there is always another chance to get it right. On the flip side, different methods means that we are constantly throwing something new at them and they can feel like they never get it right. So my advice to trainers struggling to get their dog to do a behaviour is to stop and think rather than just grabbing for the next training idea.
The power of self-assessment
And this is where we get back to that original question – Is that thing you are doing with your dog really doing what you think it’s doing? From my own experience I can tell you that it’s a good idea to check. Whether you use video or another training buddy who can watch you work, getting an outside perspective on how things are going can save both you and your dog a lot of frustration. Once you spot potential trouble spots, test things out. Can you do less of something and still get the behaviour? Will doing more of something help the dog learn faster?
Seeing your dog do the behaviour you wanted shouldn’t be the end of the training road. It’s just the first step in a process of helping them become fluent in whatever it is you are trying to teach them. Just because you managed to get your dog to “sit” does not mean that she can do it in a crowded room or with other dogs running around. And maybe your voice alone is not enough for her to understand that you want a sit. Perhaps that hand gesture that you’ve been using is more important to her than you thought it was.
The bottom line is that there are lots of methods to teach your dog all kinds of things. But it is up to you to be sure that they are learning the thing you want to teach and not just giving you some appearance of what you want. After all, some behaviours can happen by accident and some methods are good at giving you results that work under some conditions but not others. If there are 2,153 ways to teach your dog to sit, choose the one that will help them understand and be successful as often as possible. And it’s up to you not to fool yourself in the process!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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