Do I do things that my dog “doesn’t like” in training in order to change behavior?

Yes I do.  I try to minimize it, but at the end of the day?  Yes.

Normally the “thing my dog doesn’t like” is taking away the chance to earn a cookie.  My dogs don’t like that at all.

Here’s how it works:

I ask my dog to circle a cone which is 10 feet away from me.  I believe that this behavior is generally easy for him – he is fluent at circling the cone under most circumstances so he can earn a cookie with little effort.

But sometimes this simple behavior is quite hard for him.

For example, if I place the cone so that he will leave me facing my deck then we may encounter a challenge, because…LIZARDS live under my deck, and Brito knows that perfectly well.  Indeed, hunting lizards happens to be one of his personal passions.  He engages in it from the house (watching them through the windows) in the yard (when he should be going to the bathroom) and in his dreams (I JUST KNOW).

So what do I do when I send him to circle a cone facing the deck, and then rather than circling the deck he deviates?  Maybe he stops and stares at the deck when he arrives at the cone.  Maybe he  keeps moving, but his attention is clearly on the deck and not on me. Or maybe he just runs off to the deck altogether.

What do I do?

First I ask myself, “Do I think this dog can do this if he is giving his best effort?”  Second I ask myself, “Have I done my best to prepare him for this challenge using positive reinforcement?” Third I ask myself, “What am I hoping to accomplish?” And finally I ask myself, “Have I isolated a single behavior for this exercise?”

Going back to Brito’s example:

Yes, I believe he can succeed if he is trying his hardest.

Yes, I think I’ve done my best to prepare him for this challenge.  Note that this is not the same as doing the best possible training, but in this case, the “best” possible training would require captive lizards or a more effective way to prevent access to my lizard area, and neither is realistic at this time.  That’s called “training in real life” – we do our best.

I’m hoping to accomplish an understanding of what I do NOT want; in this case; I do NOT want him to leave training to chase lizards.  Note that this is distinctly different from how I spend 98% of my time.  And indeed, if I could set up a more effective training scenario I wouldn’t be in this predicament at all. (see last paragraph on real life.)

And finally, yes, circling a cone (without any other behaviors) is a simple and singular behavior.  I wouldn’t use retrieve over high jump for this exercise because that is a full chain of behaviors rather than a singular one.

Here’s how it looks.

I send Brito around the cone with an awareness that he may not meet my expectations for the behavior.

He does not.

I abort that exercise with a delay, or I end the session altogether.  If I abort that exercise, I go and sit on the lawn and wait. He quickly turns back, realizes that I’m gone (along with his cookies) and returns.  Now he has to figure out how to get me working with him again (see my Engagement posts for more information on that).  And since that takes some time, the “delay” is part of what he doesn’t like.

If I end the session, I do exactly that.  I return to the house with his cookies and opportunities to earn them.  If he was ready for this step of training, he’ll see that I’m leaving and will come along. If not, then he will watch from outside the door while I feed his cookies to the other dogs in the house.  By the time I let him in the cookies are gone.  Works great; haven’t done that in a long time.

If I selected the appropriate approach then the very next time that we attempt this exercise (circling the cone) I expect it to be quite good!  If it’s not then I’m going to ask myself a few questions:

  1.  Is hunting lizards more reinforcing for him than my work and cookies and personality and his opinion about staying in my good graces?  If yes, then I’m going to lose.  I need a new strategy, ideally involving less challenge OR I need to increase the value of what I have to offer.  Realistically, if he doesn’t feel “loss” then change is not likely to occur.  Worse, if your dog finds training stressful, then he wins in two ways when he leaves.  First, he gets to hunt lizards, and second, he gets away from you.
  2. Can he actually do what I am asking of him?  If his self control and ability to think in the presence of lizards is insufficient, then no matter how much he wants to cooperate he’ll fail when put into this situation.  I need to make it easier for him by moving further away from the challenge and building up to this exercise over time.
  3. Does he actually know what caused me to abort the exercise?  Let’s say he dipped his head as he came around the cone, and I decided that I didn’t want him to dip his head.  I can “want” him to understand all day long, but if he never knew what the criteria for success was in the first place, then he’s not going to make the connection.  Instead of proofing for lizards, I should be working on the issue of going around the cone the way I want (head up) and extinguish the head dips.  And indeed, if this is the issue, odds are very good that I will simply shut him down because “trying harder” doesn’t help if you don’t know what to do to succeed.

All three of these reasons for failure are incredibly common in dog trainers.  We over-face our dogs (put them into situation where they cannot succeed), stress our dogs (even all that happy talk can be pressure), and change the goal posts (sometimes we ignore head dips and other times we don’t) on a pretty regular basis.

Now what?  Well, if he didn’t learn it pretty darned quick (no more than two attempts) then something is wrong.  Find the weak piece and fix it.

If you repeatedly do things that your dog “doesn’t like” in an effort to change behavior, and if you are not successful, then you’ll erode your dog’s attitude about work.  That’s a very bad thing, so keep an eye on it.

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