How to teach your dog just about anything!

I wish I had a dollar for every time an owner said at the end of a training session “Wow! That was so easy! How did I not figure that out myself?” Training dogs, outside of serious behaviour issues like fear, aggression and anxiety, is generally a pretty easy task, if you go about it the right way. If you consider how dogs learn, what the common mistakes are, and you are consistent with your teaching habits, you’ll find you can teach your dog to do just about anything!

Dogs primarily learn by making associations between their owner’s request for a behaviour, and the consequence for performing the behaviour. Let’s consider the cue for sit; the owner will normally teach to a dog at a young age, and let’s face it, when you ask an 8 week old puppy to sit and he does it, it’s pretty darn cute! We’re very likely to be happy that the puppy sat upon our request, and we’ll reinforce it with either sheer joy on our face, or with a treat or a toy. Then we show off to everyone else – and each time, the puppy gets a great reward. The dog quickly learns that the sound we make by saying the word “Sit”, followed by the action of placing their bum on the floor with their forelegs remaining straight, results in life being momentarily fabulous. The dog is very likely to perform the behaviour again and again, because it is a clear cue with a high predictability of reward. Let’s also consider the accidental training we do; the crinkle of the food bag calling the dog for dinner, the ever increasing amount of barking that we immediately respond to in some way, or the excitability at the door because we’re just so happy to see our dogs when we get home after a long day. Dogs also learn to ignore a large part of their environment because they know it has no impact on their life – such as the neighbour pulling into their driveway, or the can opener that only produces food for the cat, or the incredible number of sounds that emanate from the television. It really comes down to basic survival – what cues from the owner or environment have a consequence for the dog, and which ones have no impact at all.

Common Mistakes in Simple Training:
1. Teaching hand signals and verbal cues at the same time! This usually starts in puppy school, when the trainer will have you hold a treat in your hand and raise your hand in a sweeping upward motion, while saying “Sit”. Dogs primarily communicate through body language, so it’s really much easier for them to understand hand signals versus verbal cues. In the case where the hand signal (hand sweeping upwards) is offered at the same time as the verbal cue (saying “Sit”), the dog will ignore the verbal cue because the hand signal is easier to understand, and the dog has learned to ignore irrelevant stimuli. If we want the dog to learn both, we must say the verbal cue first, and then follow with a hand signal, as opposed to asking for both at the same time.

2. Dogs don’t speak English! Dogs communicate through body language, not verbally, so in essence by using almost entirely verbal platforms to communicate with our dogs, we are making learning more challenging. Where this becomes problematic is when we begin asking for a behaviour (let’s use “Rollover”) and become frustrated when the dog doesn’t do as they are asked. The dog doesn’t know what the word “Rollover” means – he’s not born understanding a pre-defined set of common dog tricks. A good trainer will teach a dog the physical behaviour, ensure it has been repeated many times and highly rewarded each time, and then they will begin saying the cue word before asking the dog for the behaviour. In the case of Rollover, we’ll use food to lure the dog into rolling his body over, sometimes broken into smaller steps, and repeat many times until the dog ‘gets it’. By doing so, we’ve both generated a hand signal (usually a semi-circle near the dog’s nose), and demonstrated to the dog that this seemingly benign behaviour has positive consequences for him. Once he understands that, we can start saying “Rollover” before presenting the hand signal, and the dog can figure out that the word will predict the action and the reward.

3. Not teaching the dog how to generalize a behaviour! This is the dog who behaves wonderfully in obedience class, but not at home, or who is great at home but not out in public. A good example is the person who teaches their dog to run an agility course that has been set up in the back yard. The dog could literally be a backyard agility champion, but when he gets to an actual competition scenario, it’s as though he’s never seen a set of weave poles in his life. If we teach a dog to perform a certain behaviour in one place all the time, he’s been learning what cues from both you and the environment form a part of the request. For example, if we use the structure in parts 1 and 2, but only do so in the living room, the dog is factoring the environment into the equation when he’s trying to figure out what exactly you’re asking him to do, so he comes to believe it forms a part of the cue. Even if he can properly execute the behaviour 100 times over in the living room, if you take him outside in the yard where the environment is considerably different (and where, perhaps, you now ask for this behaivour while you’re standing up, whereas in the living room you may have been sitting on the floor), many of the factors he believed were part of the cue have changed, and he needs to re-learn the behaviour in this new environment. Most dogs will pick up simple cues in new environments fairly quickly, so you’re not starting from scratch, but these changes are not to be ignored when teaching your dog something new.

4. Dropping the reinforcer too soon! You’ve probably picked up on the pattern evolving here that dogs do things that are beneficial to them – not to make you happy, or because you have attained some kind of alpha or pack leader ‘status’ with them. For example, if a dog is asking to go outside, and begins by standing near the door, and you ignore them (or can’t see them), they’ll choose another method of asking. This can escalate to sitting in front of you and staring at you, and if you don’t respond, could turn into a barking request (also known as a demand behaviour). Most owners will focus on the annoying demand behaviour and respond in one way or another, but the issue lies in the fact that we ignored a perfectly reasonable request in the first place – standing quietly by the door. The dog stopped performing the reasonable behaviour because it didn’t produce the desired effect – someone letting him outside. So, if by ignoring behaviours they will disappear (or in scientific terms, ‘extinguish’), we can also claim that by rewarding behaviours they will increase. When trying to teach a new behaviour, we’re pretty reliable for providing positive feedback (treat, play, ‘good boy’ etc), but once we assume the dog ‘knows what to do’, we stop rewarding them. Once we stop rewarding, the cycle above begins, and the dog will begin ignoring requests for the behaviour because it doesn’t produce desired results for the dog. Try to think about it this way; when we first start going to the gym, we’re excited to be on a new regime and go quite frequently, and feel as though we’re accomplishing something. But after a few weeks, we realize we’re not seeing the results we had hoped to, and the visits begin to dwindle. At the same time, we may begin ‘cheating’ on our diet, and eating more and more of the things we promised we wouldn’t. Imagine if you could go to the gym and immediately lose 2 or 3 pounds after each workout, or if we immediately gained 2 or 3 pounds within minutes of eating a donut – the immediate feedback would have a huge impact on what decisions we made about exercising and eating in the future. Because neither has such immediate reward or punishment, it’s much more difficult to stick to the plan.

Things to Remember:
1. Know what your dog will work for! Most dogs are motivated by food, some are motivated by toys, and a few are motivated by praise. The vast majority of dogs enjoy all three, but won’t necessarily work a new behaviour for just praise. Food is the most common method of reinforcing a dog, and it’s important to consider a few things when using it; if you dog refuses the treat he would normally otherwise take, there is something in the training process that is creating too much stress. Secondly, it’s important to consider your dog’s weight and when training a new behaviour you may need to adjust meal size to compensate for added calories in treats. Lastly, you should develop a tier structure of foods that your dog likes from least valuable (usually kibble) to most valuable (like cheese, bacon or hot dogs). Reserve your highest value treats for more difficult training, or the beginning of training a new cue.

2. Capture the behaviours you like! Dogs will quite often perform behaviours that are appropriate all on their own. We often fail to reinforce these behaviours because they don’t capture our attention – such as a dog who lies down on his bed at meal time, or who grabs a toy when a new person comes in the home instead of jumping on them. If we notice these nice behaviours and reward them, the dog will be more likely to keep doing them. Even more complex behaviours, such as the ones you may see in movies (i.e. dogs who ‘talk’) are taught simply by capturing the behaviour, rewarding it, and then assigning a verbal cue to it.

3. Training should be fun! We all have bad days, including dogs, and sometimes either the handler, the dog, or both are just not up for the task. When I’m tired, I tend to get ‘foggy’ and forget the word I want to use, or am slow to reward the behaviour the dog performs. This can result in confusion for my dog. Sometimes, it’s my dog who is tired, or just having an off day, and he’s reluctant to engage in a training session. On those days, we just don’t train! We stick with a few easy behaviours so that the session ends on a good note, but don’t venture into unknown territory. It’s also important to note whether or not your dog enjoys what you’re trying to teach them – I’ve recently been trying to teach my Boxer to play with a flirt pole (basically a fishing pole, with a rope hanging off and a toy attached) and he has, on each occasion we’ve tried it, become flustered with it and ends up spending more time trying to avoid it than play with it, no matter how much I change up the method of teaching. This is likely just going to be something my dog doesn’t enjoy doing, and after several short (3-5 minutes) sessions, I’ve determined that we will likely not proceed with this option. If it’s not fun for both of us, we end up frustrated, and we can inadvertently teach our dog an aversion to that behaviour (can often happen when we use force, such as pushing, pinching or pulling, to teach a behaviour).

Training new cues and tricks can be a wonderful bonding experience between handler and dog, and is a wonderful way to mentally stimulate your dog. It can also build your dog’s vocabulary, and make it much easier for you to give your dog direction as to what you want him to do. By following these guidelines, you can be successful in teaching almost anything to your dog!


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