How does one train a dog?

You just cued your dog to “sit” and your dog did nothing.  Stared at you, and nothing happened.  What should you do?

If you throw your dog a cookie while he lies there not responding at all, are you teaching your dog to stay down when you signal a sit?

95% of dog trainers will say that feeding a dog for failure to perform is bad training.  To “reward” an incorrect response goes against the laws of learning!  Dogs do more of what works for them, so if ignoring your cue gets a cookie, then the dog will ignore you more!  The right answer would be to either ignore the behavior or punish it, depending on your philosophy.

And they would be wrong as often as not,  because operant conditioning presumes a conscious and rational participant that is striving to maximize his or her well being at that moment in time, and a very high percentage of the time, our dogs are not behaving in an operant fashion at all!   Operant conditioning can only work if the dog is 1) aware that his behavior matters at that time 2) knows how to adapt his behavior to get the best possible outcome and 3) cares about the result – at that moment in time.

Here’s an example:

Your dog is in a glass room behind a soundproof wall.  He cannot hear you.  You cue a sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, he can’t hear you!  So should you march in that room and correct him into a sit?  Of course not.  If he can’t hear the cue, then he can’t operate in his own best interest – he is not conscious of that fact that training is taking place, let alone that his behavior matters.

How about if your dog is in a training building with a dog lunging on his leash behind your training area, which is causing your dog a good deal of distress?  You cue your dog to sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, you gave the cue!  Should you march over there and correct him into a sit?  No!  Because at that moment in time, your dog is not participating in your training game!  His rational instinct is to preserve his safety and as long as he perceives that the lunging dog is a threat to his safety, then he is not in a place to do anything with your training.  You cannot use operant conditioning at that moment in time, because his best interest is not to attend to you. So while his behavior is certainly rational in the greater scheme of things, it’s not focused on you or learning your games, so no training can take place at that time.

But what if that lunging dog is on leash and cannot get to your dog?  Your dog has nothing to fear!

That’s irrelevant because that conclusion is from your point of view and it’s the dog’s opinion that matters. If your dog thinks that other dog is a threat to his safety then your perspective is not relevant.  And anyway, fear is rarely logical.  Even if the dog can recognize that the dog cannot get to him, that doesn’t mean he’ll just move on.

So what should you do?  You’ve given your dog a sit cue and nothing has happened.  What now?

The question to ask yourself is this; if my dog’s emotional state is not in a place to respond to operant conditioning, what can I do to make him feel better so that he WILL be in a place to respond to me?

Switch to classical conditioning.

It may well be time to stop training altogether while you puzzle out your solution.  While your dog might not be receptive to operant conditioning when he’s feeling stressed or fearful, he is always a participant in classical conditioning, so the best thing that you can do in a case like this is try and make him feel better.  Train his emotions through classical conditioning rather than his conscious behaviors.

It doesn’t matter much if your dog is not participating because he’s bored, tired, scared, doesn’t care about your consequences, doesn’t hear you or doesn’t understand you. If he hasn’t engaged in the learning process, then the only option you have is to either switch to classical conditioning or change the parameters of your operant conditioning; train when he’s not bored, not tired, not scared, change the consequences, clarify your cues, or train him to understand what you want.  And all the while, give some thought to how you can modify your overall training plan so that he’s a whole lot more excited about training, regardless of the specifics of the day, so that he begins to opt in all or most of the time, rather than opting out.

This is so hard for us trainers!

Your dog is not manipulating his way through every moment of life!  “giving it away” goes against everything many of us have been taught to believe about dog training. The phrase ‘the dog is always learning’ has come to mean that every moment of our dog’s life needs to be seen as their attempt to get more, as if they are constantly thinking about what they can get and how to avoid what they don’t like. And that is simply not true. Most of life just happens – it’s an emotional reality -not a conscious manipulative one.

If you come to accept this reality, then you can stop feeling like you have to manipulate your dog every moment as well.  The rest just falls into place.