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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.