A battle of wills, part two

June 2, 2011 § 4 Comments

Dog training is not a one-and-done situation.

A switch does not magically flip.

There is no clear-cut demarcation of “the past bad dog” and “the present good dog.”

Dog training is a constant practice. Dogs are credited with having the capacity for unconditional love; what comes with that unconditional love, though, is a requisite present-focused mind. Know why your sweet pooch loves you even though you punished him? Because he doesn’t remember being punished. This is not to suggest that dogs can’t learn. Of course they can. But the learning becomes an ingrained piece of their personality pie through repetition, reinforcement.

Key to reinforcement, of course, is patience. Many of us struggle with this one. We wish our dogs could speak English or at least had a little white matter in those frontal lobes with which to reason.

“Spot, the reason I don’t want you on the couch is because you smell really bad, and I have company coming in two hours.”

“Oh, Spike, hissing is a warning from your feline buddy. She doesn’t want to play; she wants you to leave her alone to luxuriate in that sun spot.”

“Rascal, it would be terribly helpful if you would refrain from piddling all over my luggage. I promise I’ll return home in a few days.”

“Milton,” I might say if he could understand me. “Would you mind not getting so ramped up over food? It happens every day, twice a day. You are guaranteed to eat. I’d really like it if you approached your bowl more calmly. And, while we’re at it, it sure would be nice if you would back away from your bowl and sit when commanded, as well.”

Sigh, if only.

But no, this is not the case with dogs. (Or cats or birds or monkeys or anything else that lacks a human adult brain. …and even then…)

Our dogs rely upon us to reinforce the positive behaviors we want to see and to consistently discourage those behaviors that are not acceptable.

This means two things: requisite patience and specific expectations.

1. Requisite Patience
Spot has a behavior you want to change. You create a particular command that has a clearly intended result. Spot learns this command and performs the desired result over a few more days. You feel proud. You begin to believe that Spot has changed. Spot repeats the unwanted behavior.

Here is where you self-evaluate. The last time that Spot was given the command, did he really perform the way you wanted him to? Was he just a little too excited? Did it take him several times to hear the command before he responded? Did you have to approach him or touch him in any way to encourage the result you wanted? If so, I have bad news for you. Spot hasn’t learned the command.

Another possibility, of course: maybe Spot has learned the command (particularly if his naughtiness happens after a long period of appropriately responding to the command) and is instead pushing his limits and boundaries. Dogs are toddlers. Tell yourself that, embrace it. It’s true. They are toddlers. You cannot reason with a toddler (anyone ever try? This sound familiar? “But why???” or “NO!”). Don’t waste your time on the reasoning. Just remind yourself that you must return to this command over and over and over, regardless how well you think Spot has learned the lesson.

2. Specific Expectations
This is the one I personally struggle with.

What are you trying to get out of your dog, really? Should she be absolutely perfect and angelic, practically a statue of a dog rather than the real thing? Or are you looking for something that is “good enough”? Something that “will do”? (Now, don’t start to pooh-pooh my idea just yet…hear me out.)

You are not going to receive perfection from your dogs. You can’t expect perfection in yourself, so how is it fair to expect it in animals? Instead of perfection, identify the specific result you desire.

Is Precious piddling all over the house?

Well, first self-evaluate: what are you doing wrong? Are you ignoring her pleas to go outside to potty? Are you giving her enough opportunity to potty when she’s outside? Is she just plain not letting you know, or have you maybe not learned her potty signs?

Once you’ve identified the issue (which obviously takes a great deal of time in and of itself, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to breeze through it here), then it’s time for you to establish for yourself and Precious exactly what you want her to do. Plan a command for going outside (ours is “potty”) and say it over and over and over as she sniffs the ground. When she goes, praise the hell out of her: “good potty!” But you must have the expectations that she will sniff the ground. Some dogs (especially puppies) need to sort of “walk it out,” so you have to be ready to go on a tour of the yard or even the entire neighborhood for a potty break. If you’re not willing to make this commitment…then you might reconsider the commitment to owning a dog. Just sayin’.

The Point is This….
My point is this: patience and appropriate expectations are key to training a dog. But you must also approach every single “naughty” encounter or moment of struggle as a training opportunity. For Milton, every single meal (two meals a day every single day) is a new approach to the bowl. His memory isn’t that good…he’s a dog. He recognizes patterns and gets into habits, so we are attempting to recreate his current habits and shape them into positive ones. (We’re the only ones placing judgment, remember. Dogs don’t know what’s going to be considered “naughty” or “good.”) But every time we prepare to have a meal, both Milton and I (and Robert, of course) must approach the bowl as though it’s a brand-new day. I cannot hold a grudge against him because he growled at me the previous meal. He doesn’t even remember doing it. And he was punished already. It’s done. We’ve moved on.

I firmly believe that approaching each encounter as a new opportunity to reinforce will make each subsequent encounter a little less harrowing, a little less difficult. Because your dog will create new habits…which look like “learning.”

But we cannot hold our animals accountable for a level of reasoning that we expect from other adult humans. They are not thinking about or plotting how they will come into this new encounter. That’s our responsibility as the owners. We must self-evaluate (are we feeling anxious, scared, angry, impatient today?), reassess our expectations, and prepare to reinforce from the very beginning exactly what we’ve been doing all along.

Along those lines, just because your dog has a behavior that you are trying to reshape into something else does not mean that you have a bad dog. Milton is a very good dog. He’s great with cats and with puppies. He’s awesome in big groups. He’s good with kids and will be a great “helper” when we have our own children. He’s attuned to what’s going on around him so that he is able to alert us when something is out of the ordinary. He’s also possessive over food (and sometimes toys or me, even). This is something we’re working on, but it does not negate all the positive qualities that make Milton who he is.

Training animals is not as difficult or “special” as some people make it out to be. You do not have to be a celebrity or have a facility or certification in order to train your dog. You do not have to have been a dog owner for most of your life in order to train your dog. (Hello: cat person, over here. Milton and Annie are the first dogs that I’ve ever lived with, and we’re doing just fine.) Sure, you may consult resources to help you answer questions for sticking points, but you do not have to aim for perfection. Aim for what is right for you and your dog.

And always remember to approach every single encounter with your dog as an opportunity to reinforce.

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§ 4 Responses to A battle of wills, part two

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Oh, I could’ve used this post four years ago! You & Robert sound like you’re on the right track!

  • Few rules, always enforced through reward and punishment with the balance toward reward.

    My husband trained dogs before we married and had children. What worked for his dog training clients worked for our children and our foster children. Nice post stay strong.

  • Where have you been all my dog’s naughty life–this makes so much sense. I have never understood more clearly. Now, if only Lucy will understand! Yikes!

  • jacquelincangro says:

    I really like your comment, “Well, first self-evaluate: what are you doing wrong? Are you ignoring her pleas to go outside to potty? Are you giving her enough opportunity to potty when she’s outside? Is she just plain not letting you know, or have you maybe not learned her potty signs?”

    That’s a great point! It’s up to us to think about how our communication is being received. Maybe we’re not being as clear as we ought to be. There were times when my dog would pick up something on our walk and instead of saying the cue, “Leave it.” I would say something like, “whatareyoudoingstopeatingthatitsgrossdon’ttouch.” Can I really get mad if he doesn’t leave it?

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