In my mind, training divides up into a few rough types – and I treat them differently.
Competition training is focused on achieving very specific behaviors performed in a very specific way. I don’t want my dog doing much guessing about what I want, so I tend to break these down into small pieces, tell the dog exactly how I want each bit done, string those together and then reinforce that exercise, done the way I want, heavily for the life of the dog. I am very clear in my mind about what I want, when I want it, and how I want it done.
Pet dog training is focused on rougher approximations of training and cues are added as part of the training process. The purpose is training the dog to follow specific cues to make life more pleasant for all involved. A recall! Definitely want that – but just come back – mostly to here where I am, and rarely would I want or expect the dog to sit in front of me. A position such as sit is useful, because it’s the start of self control of some type – and can become a stay. Go to a mat is great! So is a hand touch. Each of those is likely to have a cue attached and they can be used in a variety of life situations to make life easier but there is a ton of flexibility in how the dog does it. Sit on your hip or straight; down as a sphinx or otherwise. Touch my palm or my fingers or my wrist with your nose. It doesn’t actually matter – just give me some rough approximation and that works.
Food is dropped to a low level quickly because I want the behavior – not rapt attention from the dog. It makes me neurotic when a dog is staring at me trying to figure out how to work me when I don’t want to train – just come over here. Come because I want you in from the yard. No – we’re not starting a training session so stop staring at me. In basic pet style training. I want causal attention that leads to cooperation and not a dog frantically trying to work me for reinforcement. That makes the dog neurotic too – plus you get a string of irritating behaviors like demand barking from a confused dog who has suddenly started running through the gamut trying to figure out how to get you to pay. No thank you.
I initially use food to train these basic behaviors because it’s fast, and I’ll add a cue pretty quickly (or while teaching it) because the quality is not the focus – the concept is. While it would be ideal to teach these things in pristine environments and slowly add distractions afterwards, that may not be realistic and that’s fine. To accommodate that in public or a group class, I’d use a leash to prevent the dog from ignoring recall cues and I’d feel free to give lots of cues to get the dog to me (Come! YAY!!!!) with all the body language in the world to make it happen. For stay, I’ll put the dog back if they get up so the learning is coming from two sides (if you stay here on your mat you get cookies, if you move I put you back). You get the idea. I am trying to communicate to the dog some end goal. Come back over here when I call and stay over there when I ask for that.
Manners training is a bit different and is about living together in harmony. Don’t get on my counters, steal food from my plate, jump on my guests at the door, bark hysterically when I get out your leash, run through the house like a possessed demon, etc. I teach manners mostly through habit and stopping behavior that I don’t want to see plus I use those trained behaviors mentioned earlier as needed. Nose heads up to the countertop? I tell the dog not to do that. I could also send the dog to a mat, and I might do that a few times, but over the long run I’ll focus on teaching the dog “don’t put your nose up on my counter”. I’m not interested in teaching my dog that the way to start a training session is to do annoying things in the house so that I have to stop what I actually want to do and train the dog. Short term? Sure. Here and there. And that’s it. How about a crate? Well, if I were the dog, I’d rather be told what not to do then spend more time in a crate.
I train manners via communication. There is little to no food involved in basic manners and few cues beyond “good dog” and “Don’t do that”. About to jump on my guests? I stop/prevent that behavior (High arousal, rambunctious dog? I’d add some specific training there but that’s not what this blog is about). Anywhere the dog is not allowed – whether a couch or the bed – the training is largely a matter of removing the offender from the place and praising alternative choices – a focus on developing desirable habits. Excessive barking? I tell the dog to stop – when they look at me quizzically? I praise and life continues. Plus, did I mention that I puppy proof my house like I would for a human baby? Make your life easy! Set up for success. Your clients will understand all of this will little effort.
In other words, if there is a thing I DON’T want the dog to do it’s quite likely that I will communicate what I don’t want with relatively little concern. Dogs want to get along and they care what we think. I’m not afraid to communicate. I think it makes their lives easier. “Oh! When I jump on the guests she takes my collar and prevents that and the guests ignore me. I guess I’m not supposed to jump on the guests.” The dog can choose the alternative that works for them. Give the dog some credit – they are extremely good at figuring stuff out in broad strokes.
Unless, of course, the simple route is not working – if the dog is being insane or freaks if I take the collar then I’m perfectly happy to change the entire setup for success – but first I go for the easy answers. It helps to remember that dogs have been bred for a very long time to get along, and they are actively looking to get along – they figure stuff out pretty darned fast if you’re reasonably consistent and are communicating.
Now – back to those pet training skills. I use those casual pet dog training skills (come over here, go hang out on your dog bed, etc.) to back it up if the dog needs support finding a better answer.
Pet dog training is about making life with a dog pleasant for all parties. I use reinforcers to teach useful skills but as often as not I’ll drop the food rather quickly with exceptions as needed. For example, my Belgians learn to come when called and then just pretty much do it- and if they don’t I’ll verbally interrupt what they are doing instead, they look at me, I repeat the cue and they come. Now some dogs (small terrier dogs named Brito come to mind) will require lifetime reinforcement for recalls because….he’s an individual. And that’s okay – train the dog you have. I have not, and probably never will, be able to get through entire days without random cookies for him because much of his life is about management (go in your pen rather than screaming through the house when the squirrels are outside, come in from the yard even when you have envisioned a non existent gopher in the ground, etc.).
Approaching living with dogs in roughly this fashion – quickly moving from food to teach behaviors to maintaining with verbal interaction for what I do and do not want to see, my dogs are generally out of crates at a young age, well behaved with guests with minimal management, and have clear boundaries and expectations for both what I do and do not like. I work towards broad concepts of what it means to “get along” in a family. I teach basic skills to give me tools (recall, mat, stay, etc.), add in tons of physical and verbal reinforcement (look at you coming when called!) set boundaries (if you get on my couch you will be instantly removed), structure for success (to my guests – please ignore my puppy when you enter the house until you’re settled and he’s calm), recognize challenging dogs or anomalies (cookies for life for Brito’s recall).
And if I think about it – when I go into a random person’s house that has an adult dog? Most of them have achieved exactly this in a roughly similar fashion – whether they went for formal training or not. Most people with pet dogs are doing mostly fine which is a clear testament to the fact that dogs are perfectly capable of learning how to get along with reasonably unsophisticated training. Add some formal training and intentional structure to that? Awesome! You’ll get there even faster and with even less stress for all parties.
When we help others train dogs, it’s worth keeping this in mind. Our value add should be helping them achieve this more quickly, more kindly, and with clear forethought and understanding. Handle anomalies on a case by case basis. Teach your clients WHY it matters to be consistent (same as with a toddler) and HOW to structure for success when it’s not going too well (dog not ready for greeting guests at the door? Try this….)
There is much value to both simplifying training and working with the very distinct nature of a dog – they want to understand. They get along simply because it works. And they like that.