Training a Feeling

When we train dogs we aren’t working with a black box of input-output. If you’re well-versed in learning science it can be easy to start to see them that way. The best trainers keep the science behind what they are doing in mind as they take the animal’s experience into account. When complications arise the training plan must be examined, and an astute trainer will consider the emotions involved as well. As a friend put it to me recently, we are always training a feeling.

So if we’re always training a feeling, how do we make sure to train good feelings?

Use Positive Reinforcement 

Employing positive reinforcement as the primary means of training is probably a no-brainer for most people reading this blog. Nevertheless it bears repeating (and repeating, and repeating) that dogs are either motivated to earn or they are motivated to avoid; there are no mystical forces at work here. Use stuff they like to help them do stuff you like and you’re on your way to encouraging feelings of joy and excitement.

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The bright eyes, loose pant, and eager expression let me know the right feelings are there.

Avoid High-Stakes Reinforcers 

This is where positive reinforcement gets tricky. A lot of trainers advocate not only using something your dog likes but something very important to the dog; something they might even risk bodily harm or death to obtain. Now we aren’t just talking reinforcement, we are talking life or death. I wrote about this extensively here, so suffice it to say that using high-stakes reinforcers (like food for a dog that has been fasted, or toys for a dog that is usually isolated) will not condition the same emotions as simple reinforcement will. Consider the emotions at play in a card game amongst friends where winning might earn bragging rights, versus a high-stakes poker game where thousands of dollars are at stake. One is light-hearted and fun, the other is quite intense. Different emotions are at play indeed.

Clarity Rules… 

…and rules produce clarity. This is where sharpening your dog training skills matters. Marker signal mechanics, clever antecedent arrangements, and thoughtful criteria-splitting are seriously important if we want to foster joyous, confident working animals. Learning is hard enough without having to do the work of your teacher, too. Videoing your sessions, taking some data, and committing yourself to improving the areas where you fall short will actually work wonders to inspire happy feelings in your learner. If all of that feels too tedious, just be sure you watch the dog. Confusion produces unwanted behavior, and often leads to a dog that just plain gives up. If you’ve ever complained that your dog was not resilient to failure or would not push through frustration it’s time to consider your clarity. It is not their job to figure out what path we want them to choose, it’s our job to light that path so brightly that the choice is obvious.

Be Flexible

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The dog that learned despite my shortcomings, and the dog that tells me every day to step up to the plate, be better, and keep growing. 

When that brilliantly devised training plan that you concocted with all of your shiny dog training skills has a flaw (and trust me, it will) be willing to change it. Clinging to plans is an egotistical thing, not a compassionate thing (this might apply to more than just dogs…). The best trainers change their plans when it becomes clear they’ve made an error, and the great trainers see this scenario as a gift. How are we to get better if the animals don’t point out where we went wrong? If you’re lucky you’ve had a dog that always learned despite your shortcomings, and if you’re extremely fortunate you’ve had a dog that didn’t. Both of these dogs were important for my education, and lucky for me, they came in the “right” order. When something you didn’t expect happens (the dog didn’t respond the way you wanted him to) it means there is a flaw in your plan you didn’t anticipate. Don’t keep walking down that path, stop and draw a new map.

Get Permission 

I am constantly surprised at how few trainers–trainers who have great skill–don’t acknowledge this step. Training your dog how to say yes or no is worth your time, and will greatly increase the likelihood of an optimal arousal state in your learner. There are several ways to do this, I recommend training what I call “start button” behaviors, and I wrote about them here. When we are certain our animals would like to continue with the task at hand we know our training plan is clear, our reinforcers are desired without inducing desperation, and that we are being a fair and flexible teacher. This step will eliminate the possibility of attaching yucky feelings to your training, every time.

 

It’s up for all of us to decide; are we going to look at criteria alone, or are we going to consider emotions too? You know what my answer is.


2 thoughts on “Training a Feeling

  1. Excellent!

    Sue Penn, ABCDT Certified Professional Trainer & Behavior Specialist Dogs Gone Good Serving Pulaski, Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke, & Floyd Counties 805-717-4696

    No pain, fear or intimidation methods. All methods based in Behavior Sciences

  2. I love this! I remember taking a class and a classmate was having her dog do certain work to get breakfast. It seemed to do wonders for her dog so I thought I would try that but I abandoned it after one try. With my dog, who is very high drive/high energy, it created frantic behavior; whining, rushing to do was I asked, bouncing toward the door (where breakfast would be served). While he was tryng really hard to be a good boy, all he wanted was to eat. He was HUNGRY! I quickly realized this tactic was not a good one for my dog. The stakes were too high. He not only wanted, but NEEDED is breakfast. He was going to get his breakfast anyway regardless; so what would have been the point anyway? He simply saw the work as the barrier between him and his breakfast. I decided that making him heel to criteria to get breakfast was punishing, and had I continued would likely have made him hate heeling. Since then, I have come to learn that tactics like isolation and fasting to motivate dogs aren’t tactics I want to use with my dogs. Thank you!!

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