When I first started learning about training it was in the world of competitive dog obedience. In this particular niche, dog training was largely separate from everyday life. You trained the dog to do difficult but stylized things. It was a sport, a competition, a mini culture. I jumped in and competed with several dogs. This changed the course of my life a little, adding new interests, activities, and friends.
But a friend always teased me and asked why there was nothing practical in this training. Why didn’t it teach my dogs not to jump on them when greeting them? I would weakly tell her about the Canine Good Citizen classes and tests, which are a huge step in the right direction in the world of obedience. But I also knew in my heart that a dog at this time could easily pass the CGC and have bad manners in real life. (I know because I did it with two dogs!) Something was missing.
I was only gradually learning about another type of dog training – one that is based on the science of learning, but it is Likewise Everything about practicality. This type applies to everything from helping dogs in human homes to being agile in search and rescue. (This also applies to obedience in competition.) It takes into account the ethics of changing functional behavior. It encourages us to learn about dog’s body language so that we can better sense our dogs’ response to training and other situations. This type of training emphasizes the enrichment of our dogs’ lives, although we may need to change some inhumane behaviors.
It helps us to see that the laws of learning apply to humans too. Professional dog trainers train people just like dogs.
This was the new training world I had hoped would be out there. This was the missing piece. And when I finally found it, the lessons I had learned caused profound changes in my life, beliefs, and behavior.
Here are three of the many things I learned:
1. Be aware of the dog (or person) in front of me. I tend to live in my head. My friends tell me they could rearrange the furniture in my house and I wouldn’t notice. I believe my thoughts. When things contradict my expectations, I don’t always notice it right away.
A strong example of this was when I took in my once wild pup, Clara. She had grown up wild until about eleven weeks of age; Her mother had a litter of pups in the forest and I and other people in the neighborhood fed the mother in hopes of catching and saving the whole family. The puppy came into my house – completely ignoring me and slipped past me through the door – because she heard my dogs bark. She started dealing with them and I closed the door behind her – captured! Within an hour she had accepted my dogs and me too.
When Clara accepted me, I assumed that would extend to the rest of humanity. She was young and walked around the corner with me very quickly. Besides, she was a puppy! Puppies are fun; Puppies are happy. Puppies return our love for them!
The next day I put her in my car to take her to the vet for an exam and vaccination. On the way I stopped at a friend’s house to show her my new puppy. My friend stuck her head in the car and Clara growled – and Not a sweet growl. But I didn’t believe what my ears heard! I encouraged my friend to look back in and hold out her hand. This was hit with louder and quieter growls. Ouch!
That was what made me let go of my “puppy” prejudice. I finally noticed that this puppy was extremely uncomfortable and doing rather unpuppy things.
Clara’s extreme case forced me to learn and relearn this lesson: perceive the actual dog in front of you rather than your preconceived notion of the dog in front of you. I became more attentive because of her!
But you don’t need a wild pup to make this mistake. If you are planning an outing with your dog that you are sure he will enjoy, how long will it take you to determine if it is him? Not enjoy it?
If you’re like me, you may have an image in your head of the wonderful time you would have together. It can sometimes take a while before you realize that your beloved dog is not happy. She may not like the noise or the water or the other dogs or whatever and she was trying to pull you back to the car. Oh! Here is a real dog on the end of my leash and it doesn’t act like the imaginary one on my head!
The dog is fine
Interestingly, it works the other way around as well. A dog might actually be okay if we assume he’s desperate. I had this experience with my older dog cricket after she developed cognitive dysfunction in the dog. Dementia is a tragedy in humans and dogs. It is terrible and heartbreaking to see your loved one failing cognitive functions. My cricket went through a period of anxiety in the early and middle stages of her dementia. But she was lucky because as the disease progressed, she got fewer desperate, no more. But it took me a while to catch up on that and believe it.
For a long time I experienced a wave of sympathy and sadness when cricket went in circles, forgot what it had just done, or got out in a corner. But, from careful observation and what we know about how to recognize dogs, I came to believe that she did not suffer while doing these things.
Unlike me, she did not remember her previous skills and mourned them. She showed no frustration or anxiety over the course of the illness. The dog in front of me was impaired, but she was actually fine.
2. See the good. That sounds simple enough. Most of us know the benefits of “seeing the good in the world” and looking on the good side. But I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about attitudes or the bigger picture. I’m talking about that little Image.
In a training based on positive reinforcement, we create the conditions for the desired behavior. When our dogs do them, we reinforce them with food, play, and other things that work for that particular dog. But we have to see the behaviors first. We must be careful.
One method of developing a new behavior is by detection. With this method, we are constantly looking for a behavior that we want in a particular context. We look for the moment when our dog bows, folds back or checks in with us in a difficult situation. We reinforce it. We look for what we want instead of reacting to all the things we don’t want.
After a while, the sensing can generalize – for humans! We are no longer just looking for this one behavior. We notice all sorts of cool and helpful things our dogs do.
It’s easy to notice the bad things. We’re wired like that. It’s a survival problem. If our ancestors haven’t seen the blackberry stand, ripe pecans on the ground, or the excellent fishing hole, they may have gotten hungry. Usually, however, they were given another chance. But if they failed to notice the coiled snake or the tide – well, they weren’t anyone’s ancestors.
This does not mean that positive reinforcement is weak. Far from it. We have to eat sometime after hiding from the tigers. We have to do it regularly or we will die. It’s just that things that are dangerous or uncomfortable grab us by the amygdala.
But I learned to notice when my dog was doing the right thing, the comfortable thing, or the safe thing. And that habit slowly spread to the rest of my life. I noticed the good more and that led to a change in behavior my Part. I not only noticed the good, but also encouraged it.
It meant bothering to say “thank you” – not just in social situations, but under circumstances too where a little observation told me that the person had tried very hard to do something good or helpful. It meant seeing something in common with difficult people. It meant standing up for someone I disagreed with when they argued politely and fairly. It meant complimenting perfect strangers if I liked the way they treated their children, their parents, or their animals.
Finally, I carefully checked my values. What is “good” for me anyway? If I want to encourage people in certain behaviors, I would have thought better!
3. Be patient with behavior changes. I can remember the days when I thought I should be able to change my dog’s behavior right away if only I knew the right trick or could buy the right thing. Abracadabra and the dog no longer jump over the fence into the garden. There is a kind of separation in our culture. Because even if we haven’t heard of things like learning theory, positive reinforcement, or extinction, we are probably familiar with habits.
We know habits are hard to change – and I’m not even talking about addiction, just everyday habits! How long does it take to remember to take the new route to work since there is long-term construction going on on your usual route? What about that time four weeks into the new route, when you were dreaming and walking the old way again?
How often do you try to turn a light switch on when you know your power is off? How long does it take to change your posture based on your physical therapist’s instructions? Breathe differently?
Most adults were often hit on the head by reality as they tried to change their habits. We can still buy the idea that we should be able to change a dog’s behavior immediately if that behavior is currently working great for the dog. And even if we take the time to train the dog well and the dog is a happy participant, we are still work against habits.
What I’ve learned from dog training and behavioral research, and been careful that changing a deeply ingrained behavior can be slow. When I see how difficult it can be for me, I have more patience with my dogs (and with people too!).
These three lessons improve one another. When I am not hindered by prejudice (# 1), I can see the good in a situation (# 2), and patience (# 3) helps me shape the good that is already there into something better . This applies to dog training, personal training, and my personal growth.
Parts of this article were first published in BARKS from the guild, Official publication of the Pet Professional Guild.