What’s Your Theory?

What's up?I’ve been reading a lot of dog training books lately and many trainers provide readers with the reasons their method of training dogs works or makes sense. More often than not it has something to do with wolves, pack behavior, prey drive, alpha animals, etc. Statements are made about what dogs want or need. Most of them leave an owner struggling to sort out whether they’ve got the right energy, leadership skills, or understanding of their dog’s primal nature. At least most agree that dogs are not people in fur coats. Whew, that I get.

Research into the genetics of dogs and wolves has shown that rather than descending from wolves, dogs and wolves more likely share a common ancestor. What difference does this make to a pet owner? Not much I suspect. How the trainers who have based their theories on the relationship between dogs and wolves are going to reconcile with this information remains to be seen.

It is really quite remarkable that we pay so much attention to wolf behavior when it comes to training our dogs when we haven’t been living with and training wolves for thousands of years. It’s been dogs that have shared our households, our lives and and for some of us still, our livelihoods. You’d think that we’d have enough experience living with dogs to not need to ‘go offshore’ for our training skills and techniques. But we do and the theories abound.

Without question there are dogs that challenge our abilities and try as we might to analyze why they behave they way they do, we have to admit that we will never know. As I’ve heard one trainer put it, “People have the theories, dogs have the facts” and they aren’t talking.

The owner struggling to understand and train their dog has access to a great body of knowledge that can help them make sense of how to change their dog’s behavior or get the dog to perform certain behaviors. To me it feels like a golden age of dog training-shock collars are being shelved, the choke chains reserved for a few and you’d be hard pressed to find a trainer today who advocates the use of a rolled up newspaper for training purposes.

We will probably never stop trying to understand why dogs behave the way they do, and good for us, let’s keep that inquisitiveness alive, but for anyone working with a fearful dog, or any dog for that matter, there are some basics about how dogs learn new skills that we know (from well documented research and study) and which form the foundation of any training.

1. Dogs get better at behaviors they repeat. Don’t like a behavior? Don’t let the dog repeat it.

2. Behaviors that get rewarded will increase. Behaviors that are punished will decrease.

No need for more right now, these two will give you plenty to work with.

A good trainer will help you come up with ways to prevent your dog from practicing behaviors you don’t like, from long lines for recalls and crates for housetraining, there isn’t the need to worry about who’s the pack leader or why Rex chooses your closet as a toilet. Let’s just say that dogs don’t always come when they are called and have their reasons for pooping in places we find distasteful. A vet visit might be the surest way to find out why your dog is behaving the way it is since some behavior ‘problems’ are actually medical ones.

You don’t need a trainer to tell you what is rewarding for your dog but it is worth noting that what is a reward is determined by the receiver, not the supplier. For some dogs, as with some people, being praised is rewarding, why I might even wash the dishes again it makes my mother so happy, but I’m not likely to go to work 40 hours a week for a pat on the back and a few ‘you’re wonderfuls’. But I might enjoy my work so much that I’m willing to do it and not expect to become a millionaire from my efforts, the work is rewarding to me. Chasing a chipmunk (or car) is rewarding to many dogs, no need to toss them a treat for that behavior to get them to repeat it. A door opening can be a reward for sitting quietly in front of it, a ball tossed into a pond can be a reward for bringing it back, a piece of cheese can be a reward for coming when called (add to it the opportunity to go back and chase that chipmunk and you’ve made the recall even more rewarding).

Our imaginations seem to be limited when it comes to punishment, images of rulers smacked on wrists and bottoms spanked, have set us on a track we find hard to get off of. And of course there is the fact that punishment works quite well in changing behavior. Knee your dog in the chest often enough and hard enough and it probably will stop jumping up on you. Holding them up by their leash when they jump up (and threaten their air supply) will likely make them think twice before performing the behavior again, but there are other options for getting the same ‘no jumping’ behavior that don’t end up with a dog going from ‘happy to see you’ to wondering whether something harsh might happen in connection with approaching you. There is also the risk of other fall-out from punishment and too often this is interpreted as further ‘deviance’ on the dog’s part. No need to quibble over what constitutes punishment either, if it causes a behavior to decrease, it is by definition punishment.

Punishment does not have to hurt, be loud, or scary to be effective. Move from a sit when the door is opened, the door closes, stay in a sit and the door stays open and the invitation to go out is offered.

When working with fearful dogs it is important that any punishment used does not add to the dog’s already formed negative association with the activity or object.

It does not require a treatise on dog behavior or motivation to get your dog to perform the behaviors you’re after from them. A good trainer can offer you ideas and suggestions based on the simple concepts that dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for and get better at behaviors they repeat. I’m working on my own ‘theory’ of why dogs behave the way they do, but I’ll save that for another post, I’m still making it up.

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