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Learning to Learn


Concepts in Training

Your dog wants things to be more companionable between you... he doesn't want you giving him that look (the one my Hubby calls 'the DOG POUND look'.  Yes, he says that to them, when he really wants them to know what he's thinking. lol)

Your dog needs firm, gentle, loving leadership in order to be a productive member of your family.  Every dog needs this type of guidance -- not just yours!   This series of articles will teach you simple, humane, non-violent ways to teach your dog the basic tools necessary for co-existing with humans.  Treat your dog with respect, kindness, and love -- and you'll get the same in return.  If your dog "mugs" you when you show interest, let me know, and we'll work on that... but don't be afraid to have some fun with your dog, either... one of the biggest mistakes I see with owners is that they take themselves too seriously... lighten up, and have fun!!


My Thoughts on Obedience Classes:

Formal conventional obedience classes have their benefits... from the point of view of the average pet-owner -- and their dogs -- they're very few. While they *do* provide structure, they can be quite detrimental to the learning process.  The exception to this, of course, are classes based *solely* in positive reinforcement methodology with only 4-6 dogs.  With more dog-owner pairs than this in a grouping, it's just too hard to focus on what the individuals are doing and learning.

1) Standard conventional classes are based on level of expertise, rather than age -- this means that young dogs, at the lower levels, are put into the same classes with older dogs that have never been around other dogs, and are often fear-aggressive... this is a recipe for disaster, from both sides.

2) Standard conventional classes tend to have a minimum of 6-8 dogs in a small, confined area, all on-lead, walking in a circle. Each of these qualifications in themselves is a set-up for disaster -- confinement makes the dog feel vulnerable (it's highly likely that the dog will exhibit offensive aggression), and the standard heeling patterns set up in these classes sets the dogs up to try to react on both prey drive (wanting to get that dog in front) and defense (fear of being attacked from behind).  Please note that the 'answer' to any of these possible scenarios DOES NOT include a choke or prong collar.  Ever.

3) Standard classes usually last for an hour -- the recommended training session is 10-15 minutes. So, both you and your dog will become frustrated less than halfway through -- entirely normal -- these classes just expect too much from both of you.  In 1-1 sessions, you can more readily change areas and focus without losing momentum, so that it's possible to do longer sessions without FEELING like you're doing longer sessions.

I don't recommend that people take their dogs into standard conventional class situations, except under very limited circumstances. The average pet-owner can teach their dog much more effectively (and have *fun* doing it!) at home -- a much less stressful environment. I recommend clicker training, at home... if you can't find a clicker training class in your area.  Coupled with regular socialization in an area where the dogs can be off-lead, it's the best scenario. For the owner that wants to take their dog into obedience showing, I also recommend clicker training {grin}.

I only recommend those standard classes for those owners who use total positive reinforcement (no punishment at all!!); can read their dogs like a book; and are *not* afraid to simply walk out, when the stress becomes too much. This means that, when your dog starts showing signs that he's becoming frustrated at not being able to play with those other dogs, the lesson is over... expecting more of him is simply unfair.  It also means that, if you don't agree with the methodology used by the instructor, you're able to pack up and leave -- rather than allowing the instructor to continue to use the methods on your (defenseless!) dog.  Trust me... even if someone else (like the instructor) is doing the punishment, it will still be associated with you.

You need to understand these following concepts *before* starting to work with your dog --  understanding this will make the process much more enjoyable for both of you!

Generalizing a Behavior

Dogs don't generalize behaviors readily.  Oh, they can do it, with some work, but just because your dog understands "sit" in the kitchen next to his food bowl when you're holding the food bowl, doesn't mean that he'll understand it in the driveway, or in the vet's office, or anywhere else.   This is a very simple concept, yet so many people fail to grasp it.  When a human learns the word "sit", that human very quickly comes to understand that "sit" means the same thing in every situation -- that is generalizing.  Dogs incorporate their environment into their learning -- spend a week teaching Fido to "sit" in the kitchen, then take him to obedience class outdoors.  Unless you've also included "sit" outside, he's going to look fairly confused (and you'll look pretty ridiculous, because of course, you've announced "Look what Fido can do!!")  When you teach a dog anything -- a new command, housetraining, a simple parlor trick -- learning is not complete until the skill is generalized (re-learned or practiced).  In every conceivable situation.  With different people giving the commands.   Without, and then with distractions.  On-lead, and then off-lead.  Every new variable that is added or taken away, changes the learning environment for the dog.


Always remember:  if your dog fails to perform on cue, it's probably because the cue hasn't been generalized (practiced) to a location.  Back up a step in your training protocols, and re-teach.  He wants to do it, he just doesn't know what "it" is.

Now, a word about language:

No one wants to think that their dogs could end up in a Rescue situation.  They think they'll live forever, or that they'll never be faced with a situation wherein they'll need to find new homes for their dogs.  There is a *reason* why there is a uniformity to commands -- think of the implications, should your dog require Rescue services:  if your dog gets lost, and you can't find it, you've lessened the stress on your dog if you've trained him using the predominant language.

Train your dog with this in mind:  the average shelter or Rescue worker should be able to give a simple command: "sit", "down", "heel" -- and your dog respond in a positive manner.  Having others work with him will help in this, too, by generalizing the behaviors to other humans.  This is, depending on the age of the dog, condition when found, and overall health, what can decide the future (or lack of future) for your dog, should the dog become dependent on re-homing.  Protect him!!

I teach companion-style obedience to my own dogs, and those that are placed through me.  Companion-style obedience is a much more relaxed (not sloppy!!) version of competition obedience.  The heel involves simply walking on loose lead, somewhere in the general area of the heel.  The sit can involve leaning (it's been expressed to me that leaning dogs are an asset in Animal Assisted Therapy -- it gets the dog closer to those individuals in wheelchairs).  My dogs are taught to "walk nice" on loose lead -- they can walk anywhere they want, so long as the lead remains loose.  They can sniff the ground, scratch an itch, show interest in things besides me.  My dogs are only required to "heel" when crossing streets.  My point here is that you should feel free to be relaxed and comfortable with your dog... you decide what you need for your dog to do, and what you're willing to put up with from your dog.  

Your first lesson will begin soon, and will include charging the clicker, and using a verbal marker, just in case you decide to use a verbal (use of a verbal marker frees up a hand... but you can do that later, when you're more comfortable with the methodology, if you like.)  We'll also cover some problems encountered with using "conventional" aversive methods, since many of the rescues have been taught using these aversive methods (which means you might be dealing with 'aversive fall-out').  If you're interested in using the clicker method with your dog, please read the article on the website covering the basics -- I promise you that, once you get the hang of it, you'll never go back!  I prefer the clicker method as opposed to using a verbal marker, as it takes some of the guesswork out of the process for the *dog*.  In preparation for future "classes", please purchase a headcollar for your dog.  If you have questions about where to buy training items for your dog, please don't hesitate to ask!

It's not difficult to teach behaviors at all -- the problem comes in when the dog performs the first or second time, and the owner thinks his job is DONE! {grin} It's not... it's just starting. This isn't meant to undermine your feeling of euphoria at having taught your dog to *do* something... it's simply meant to help you to keep your expectations more in-line with reality. Training a dog takes WORK -- anyone who says differently is trying to SELL you something. Like one of those handy-dandy shock collars.


Motivating your dog to WANT to learn: This is an important concept, and has absolutely NOTHING to do with correction or punishment. What I'm teaching here is the idea that your dog will work for fun, for interaction with you, for a PAYCHECK... just like YOU do. Motivation is the reward for behavior. In every facet of your dog's behavior (or, MISbehavior, as the case may be {grin}), you have to look for the dog's motivation. For example, if you're trying to teach your dog to ignore all other dogs (which is NOT a realistic expectation), a MilkBone doggie biscuit is NOT going to motivate him to comply. The reward must be commensurate with whatever the dog may be giving up in order to comply... it must meet or exceed the relative value of the reward that the dog would gain, if he chose NOT to ignore that other dog. Sometimes, that's not an easy task to achieve. lol


So, in teaching your dog, follow these simple rules:


1) Cut his meals in half, to increase his interest in the food rewards you're using. No, it's not "mean" to do this -- if you're working with your dog several times a day, chances are you're making up the calories with the Really Good Stuff... you don't want him to become overweight.


2) Use the Really Good Stuff -- NOT store-bought "doggie treats". Use his very favorite foods, and mix them up, and ONLY use them for rewards. Things like sliced hotdog (beef, pork, or chicken -- NOT turkey! Turkey, when processed for human consumption, contains lots of preservatives that have been shown to cause epilepsy in dogs!), cubed cheese or chicken, liverwurst, grapes, watermelon, apple, popcorn... whatever your dog REALLY likes. Store-bought doggie treats contain lots of chemical preservatives and artificial colorings -- plus, they often contain corn and wheat... lots of dogs can't handle these, as they're prone to allergies.


3) Start in one area, work there for a day or 2, and then move to a new area. And, when you move to the new area, back up your expectations a little: dogs don't generalize behaviors like people do, so when you change environments, you need to lower your expectations and re-teach the behavior. When you've taught the same behavior in several different locations, you can start taking him for walks and having him perform in several different places along the way -- this helps him to understand that "this word means this thing in every situation".


4) Make sure that everyone uses the same word to mean the same thing... for example, I use the word "off" to mean "get off the sofa" -- but my sister uses the word "down" to mean "get off the sofa". That's very confusing for my dogs... because "down", to them, means "lay down". And, don't *combine" things like "sit down". Use single-word commands, to keep from causing confusion for your dog.


5) Before starting to teach the commands to your dog, decide what your goal is in his obedience. If your end goal is to simply teach your dog to be a companion, then these following guidelines will help you to achieve that end. If your end goal is to compete in obedience, I *highly* recommend purchasing the book "Clicker Training for Obedience", by Morgan Spector. This book is a highly-acclaimed work following the principles of clicker training -- your dog will learn everything he needs to know to compete, without using correction. Competition obedience *does* differ from companion obedience, so if you're planning to show, train your dog with this in mind.


6) Dogs tend to internalize visual signals much more quickly than they do the verbal commands -- so, I always use *both* the hand signals and the verbal ones when working with dogs. If you intend to use only verbal commands, it's much easier on the dog if you go through the process of luring the dog into position, then adding the verbal command, then *fading* the hand signal. I've found that people are much more impressed by dogs who respond to hand signals, though. {grin}


7) "Fading" the use of props or rewards: a prop is any item that you use to facilitate "getting your dog to DO something". Props can be toys, treats, a clicker, your foot behind the dog for the sit, etc. Fading is a hard concept for some... lots of people tend to feel that if you use "bait" to train the dog, that you'll always NEED that "bait" -- this isn't true, so long as you "fade" the "bait" or prop properly. Fading is done by S-L-O-W-L-Y removing the bait or prop from association with the behavior... in the instance of using your foot, as in teaching the "sit", you simply move your foot closer and closer to the original position beside your *other* foot. With food, it's a little trickier -- because your dog will always work best if there is a reward involved. HOWEVER, it's completely feasibly to fade food rewards *ALMOST* all the way out -- and, in fact, the dog will work even HARDER if you DO this. Please read the article on Positive Reinforcement for more on "extinction".

Brenda Rushman CCBC



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