Becoming A More Effective Trainer: A Necessary Shift In Perspective

Becoming A More Effective Trainer: A Necessary Shift In Perspective

Today’s post has a more philosophical bent than some of my previous entries, but I think it’s a topic well worth exploring.  It’s not always enough to talk about how to do things, what works and what doesn’t – to be truly effective trainers, we also need to think about why.

First, let me start with a very general question: what is dog training about?

As humans, we have a natural tendency to view our dogs’ behavior through the prism of our own experience – we make moral decisions, learn right from wrong, and follow the rules for acceptable behavior as dictated by the culture we live in.  Our dogs are our closest companions in the animal world, and many owners (myself included!) consider them to be fully-fledged members of the family.  It’s entirely normal, then, for us to view our relationship with dogs and our attempts to get them to behave the way we want as part of this same essential framework.

Entirely normal, but problematic all the same – for reasons we will discuss in a moment.

Given this perspective, it’s not surprising that most novice dog owners, if pressed to explain what they are doing when they bring their dogs to training class, would give some variation on the following response: We are teaching them to behave nicely.  We are teaching them to be polite.  We are teaching them what’s acceptable and what’s not.

These explanations make sense to us.  We want our dogs to be obedient and respect our authority, to care about our feelings, and to do what we tell them for these reasons.  This is what we think training is – all of us, without exception – when we first start out.

But what is training about, for our dogs?

Picture this scene – a common one, in my experience.

A dog is working off-leash in a training class.  Perhaps obedience, perhaps agility – it doesn’t matter.

The dog becomes momentarily distracted, as dogs do, by a piece of food on the floor, or an interesting person outside the window, or an unfamiliar dog on the sidelines.  He bolts from his owner’s side to investigate.  The owner, irritated, walks over to her dog, jerks the collar and scolds the dog, and brings him back to continue working.

Or this: A handler is working her dog on an exercise he knows well, like a sit in heel position, in a new environment.  The dog is distracted and lackadaisical, looking everywhere but at his handler.  Finally, after many repeated commands, the dog manages to focus long enough to sit – slowly, half-crooked, and with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  The handler sighs in frustration – that sit was terrible, he can do better – and withholds the reward.

Or even this, a more classic example: An owner calls her dog at the park; it’s time to go home.  Her dog, preferring to stay and continue playing, fails to heed her recall cue and leads her on a merry chase around the park for a solid twenty minutes before being corralled at last.  When she finally gets a hand on his collar, she explodes in anger – “Bad dog!  I said come!  You come here, right now!”  Clips the leash and marches to the car in a huff to drive home.

Now, I realize that there is plenty of room for debate on the best way to handle these types of training issues – on when it makes sense to reward effort vs. precision, options for managing the environment to set our dogs up for success, and even situations where a well-timed correction might have the desired effect.

This debate – a fascinating topic in its own right – is beyond the scope of today’s post.

What I want to talk about today, is the way that we react when our dogs fail to do what we want.

These examples are all too common; anyone who has worked with dogs for any length of time could supply dozens of their own.  When our dogs don’t comply with our wishes – when they are disobedient, and even this term hints at the fundamental misunderstanding involved – we have a very human tendency to interpret their behavior as a personal affront.

“He’s not listening to me.”

“I said sit!”

“She’s blowing me off.”

These are loaded statements, and they speak to our assumptions even if we don’t realize it.

What we often fail to remember – or perhaps have never thought about – is that our dogs are not like us.  They don’t have complicated personal agendas – no aspirations of glory in the competition ring, and no convoluted plans to ruin our day.  Right and wrong, authority and disobedience – these are human constructs that have no meaning or relevance for our dogs.

Instead, they do the things they do for very simple reasons: because the activity is intrinsically fun for them (like chasing squirrels), because it will lead to something they like (sitting for a treat), or because it will allow them to avoid something painful or unpleasant (sitting to avoid a leash correction).

When we train dogs, this is what we are really doing: using our ability to plan ahead, and manipulating these consequences to get the effects we want.

We offer a treat after a sit because we want our dog to sit again the next time we ask.  Depending on the training techniques you employ, you may apply a correction at the precise moment an unwanted behavior occurs to decrease the odds that your dog will decide to do it again.

And ideally, particularly for competition sports where classic rewards and corrections are not allowed inside the ring, we would like to get to the point where working with us in this context is a joyful game that the dog enjoys for its own sake – which ensures that we will continue to get a good ring performance in the future.  In everyday life, we may strive for the goal of having our dogs choose to walk beside us on a loose leash without the need for cookies, or a reliable recall away from a fleeing rabbit fifty yards away.

These are worthwhile goals, and very achievable for many dogs.  But if we want these things, we have to earn them.

And so, the bottom line is this: if your dog is not doing what you want, it’s because you have failed to teach the behavior effectively, or because you have not made it worth his while to do so.  That’s it.  Dogs are fundamentally honest creatures – this is one of the things I love most about them.

So what of our examples above?

In each of these cases, our hypothetical handler’s reaction was based on venting her displeasure rather than attempting to effect meaningful change in the dog’s behavior.  This isn’t training – it’s simply an emotional reaction, and it’s very human.  We have all been that handler, at some point or another in our journey.  We all are that handler from time to time, despite our best efforts – we all get frustrated and upset, and make poor training decisions as a result.

Becoming a better trainer begins with a single, game-changing realization: effective training is not about passing judgement on what your dog just did.  It’s about changing what he chooses to do next time.

This is why we grit our teeth, and praise and reward the dog we’ve just spent 20 minutes chasing around the dog park – because we want him to remember that being caught was much more fun than running away, and let us catch him sooner next time.  It’s why we reset without comment and try again, making a point to reward early on, rather than scolding the dog who takes off after a distraction during our heeling pattern – because if the environment is fun and interesting, and we are grumpy and dull, the dog’s heeling won’t get any better.  And it’s why we may choose to give a treat for that first crooked sit in a difficult, distracting situation – because our dog is trying, and he’ll try harder if we reward his effort.

It’s all just behavior – nothing more, nothing less.

My dog Remy is as close to perfect as any dog I’ve ever met – though I freely admit that I’m biased! 🙂  He has titles in obedience, rally, and agility and passed his Canine Good Citizen test with flying colors many years ago.  He’s a joy to train, a great demo dog for our beginner obedience classes, and the easiest competition dog I’ve ever had.

But – he is a dog, and he does dog things.  Like barking at squirrels in the backyard at 6 am on a Saturday, or ignoring me at work in favor of sniffing a tantalizing pee stain on the pavement, and he will steal an entire sandwich off my plate in the blink of an eye if the opportunity presents itself.  He finds all of these activities highly rewarding, and therefore he will continue to do them in the absence of any compelling reason not to.  The fact that he does these things is not a commentary on our relationship or how he feels about me, and I don’t take it personally.

If we want to be better trainers, this is the very first step: we have to stop being offended when our dogs become distracted, or find other things more rewarding or interesting than we are, or fail to understand what we want.  And instead, shift the focus back to ourselves and what we could do differently to motivate them or help them learn.

Because what’s done is already done – the sit is already crooked, the recall was too slow, the stray bit of food on the training room floor already eaten.  Next time is what matters.

So rather than placing blame or becoming frustrated, accept your dog’s failure to perform correctly for what it is: feedback on how effectively (or not) you have trained the behavior in question.

And then, re-evaluate your training plan to do a better job for next time.

17 thoughts on “Becoming A More Effective Trainer: A Necessary Shift In Perspective

  1. I think what you are referring to is the difference in what humans expect from dogs compared to what dogs expect from humans.
    At least every American has seen their share of Disney movies and how dogs are portrayed. They are seen as thinking and reasoning animals whose goal is to please the human or master, using old language. When people get their first pet, reality hits them hard in the face, and they learn that the goal of their precious new puppy has nothing to do with pleasing them, but with pleasing themselves, which translates into chewing and barking and playing non stop and running and chasing and eating and pooping and peeing, to name only a few.
    Then the next hard reality for humans is that they must discipline and set rules for their new balls of fur like a parent, instead of being the one-on-one friend that they had hoped for and dreamed about.
    Those two aspects are why animals end up in shelters either surrendered or unclaimed: they aren’t willing to actually train and set rules for their new buddies. They just wanted to have a 24 hour compadre and a being who adores their every move and action and who listens to their non stop chatter.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I do think that romanticized notions about dogs and why they do things are a major factor in frustration and misunderstandings for many novice dog owners.

      For me, I know that this realization was a big part of my journey from a starry-eyed teenager with my first dog to where I am today. I think that all trainers have to grapple with this when they are first starting out – and accepting that dogs are dogs, and they won’t do what you say “just because” is a big milestone that has to be cleared before you can be successful.

  2. This has to be one of the best articles I have read for some time. This is exactly what I have been trying to explain to my students and you nailed it..

    1. It’s definitely an important lesson for students! We talk about this quite a bit in our beginner classes, as well – a lot of misunderstandings stem from this idealized view of dogs and why they do things.

  3. Yes, love how you explained this! Once I learned not to blame the dog or take their behavior personally, owning and training dogs became so, so much more enjoyable.

    1. It’s very freeing, isn’t it? It was a pretty significant realization for me, many years ago. And yes – once you are able to take the emotions and hurt feelings out of training, it becomes much more enjoyable for everyone involved 🙂

  4. Oh my yes! Brilliantly described!

    It’s so hard for dog parents, it’s this huge dichotomy – love your dog, anthropomorphize your dog, give over all the squishy love and cuddles. BUT… take those emotions out, or at least control them, when actively training. Especially for the novice, that is often a difficult shift.

    1. It is a difficult shift! For me, it was really very freeing to realize that my dogs’ behavior is not driven by respect (or lack thereof), stubbornness or spite – just simple cause and effect. It actually makes training much easier in many ways, but for us humans it’s very tough to leave our ego out of it 😉

      1. A dog can be taught acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the home. You teach your dog that pottying occurs outside and that jumping on people is not allowed and that biting animals and people is not allowed. You can teach your dog to not grab food, even though left unattended. It is called “creating the situation and then teaching.” However, if you regularly avoid teaching your dog acceptable manners, of course, he/she won’t learn them, but that is your choice. A dog can learn the behavior if you teach it.

    1. A very valid question! 🙂 In my case, I avoid this problem by not leaving my sandwiches unattended – I live alone and am always very aware of where the dogs are and what they are doing, so this is a very easy solution for me. If, once in a blue moon, I happen to forget and Remy gets an unapproved snack from the coffee table, I chalk it up to my own inattentiveness and get on with my day. No harm, no foul.

      Now, there could certainly be situations where this wouldn’t be an acceptable solution. If I had young children in the house, or if Remy were a working or service dog, or regularly spent time in places where he would be tempted with unattended food, then I would need to train him to leave it alone unless given permission to take it. This can absolutely be done; if I were training it, the process would involve setting up situations where there appeared to be unattended food available (but not truly accessible to the dog, to prevent accidental self-rewarding!) and building a strong reward history for choosing to ignore food in the environment. Over time, you can increase the difficulty of these training exercises until a dog will happily ignore a steak on the floor in front of him – but this takes a lot of time and effort, and I have other things I prefer to work on instead.

      So for me, the easiest option is to just keep my sandwiches out of reach. In dog training, as with so many things in life, you have to pick your battles 😉

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