In an earlier blog, I established that training your German Shepherd working dog makes the difference between a happy, cooperative member of the family and a demon dog. Here I’ll outline how to create the perfect family dog using the best dog training methods known to modern science.
A Debatable Subject
Ask 6 different dog trainers what the best dog training method is and you will get 6 different answers. Dog training has evolved a lot in the past 50 years or so. Unfortunately, I think that we modern trainers could do a better job of informing the public about what we know.
I have an old English dog training book that says the best way to train a dog to bark is to tie him to a tree and swat his front legs with a light stick until he barks. Then instantly give him the command and praise him for doing it. Repeat until he barks reliably on just the command. Today we call that animal abuse!
B. F. Skinner coined the phrase Operant Conditioning in the first half of the 20th century. This type of training spread to the dog world in the 1990s where it has now taken over. Operant conditioning uses positive and negative reinforcement to establish particular behaviors. One technique of operant conditioning in particular, clicker training, is now widely used in the dog training community.
But don’t misunderstand me. I do not support 100% positive reinforcement training. Like so many things in life, I believe balance is important in dog training.
The Major Mythconception
Without a doubt, the biggest carry over from 1950s era dog training is the myth that wolf packs are composed of a group of individuals constantly vying for dominance but held in check by the alpha male and the alpha female. These ideas came from studying random collections of wolves that were gathered in captivity. Since the wolves had come from different places, there was some of this hierarchical behavior among what were basically groups of strangers.
In the wild, however, wolf packs are not made up of a random collection of individuals. Typically, packs are based on a family including a breeding pair and their offspring from the last 1-3 years, or sometimes two or three families. As the pups grow, they eventually leave the pack and go off to form a pack of their own. So rather than referring to the top pair as the alpha male and alpha female, they would better be referenced as dad and mom! Wolves in the wild have cooperative, family relationships rather than a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.
Still, there are TV dog trainers who have built their entire careers around the notion of “being the alpha”. This is a dangerous practice that creates aggressive dogs who fear their owners instead of coexisting in a healthy partnership. Today, we understand that the “alpha roll” is downright cruel. And very dangerous. The punishment, be it a roll, a hit, a kick, a slap or a harsh yank on the leash, can make the dog shut down, which can be mistaken for calming. In reality, you can be making the dog insecure. This makes the dog more likely to lash out and attack.
Yes, you are the leader, but you are a benevolent dictator — a kind, fair and balanced leader. Think Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Roman Good Emperors.
Positive Reinforcement, i.e. Marker or Clicker Training
If you have ever taken a college Psychology class, and possibly even if you haven’t, you have heard of B. F. Skinner. B. F. Skinner was an American Psychologist. He originated the idea of operant conditioning which basically says that behavior that has a negative consequence tends to go away. Similarly, behavior that is rewarded tends to remain and even becomes stronger.
Some of B. F. Skinner’s students went on to become experts at “shaping” behavior. Shaping a behavior is when you start by rewarding behavior that is vaguely close to what you want. Then future rewards are only given as the behavior moves closer, i.e. is shaped, to continually approach the desired outcome. They also began regularly using a marker: a whistle, word or click, used to signal the animal that it is doing what they wanted.
One of those students, Karen Pryor, started training dolphins. Over time, she began applying these same ideas to dogs. Her work eventually led to her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” which introduced the wider dog community to these psychological concepts.
Nowadays, among the good trainers, the initial teaching of all commands begins with marker training. It makes for a happy dog who is eagerly trying to figure out what it needs to do to get you to become the human Pez dispenser of treats! It makes for a dog that enjoys learning.
Lastly, this is only a brief introduction to the concept of clicker or marker training. There are a lot of books and videos on the subject, and there will be more blogs on this site! My personal recommendation for a great introduction to these ideas is Nan Arthur’s “Chill Out Fido!” which is aimed at rewarding your dog for exhibiting self-control: a common need with strong-willed, high-energy working dogs!
This is not to say you never correct your dog. There are corrections given in training obedience. There are corrections given for anti-social behavior. Here, I’m just talking about corrections given as a part of obedience training. In this context, a correction is not a punishment. It is a means of changing a dog’s behavior. I think of it more as getting the dog’s attention, or just reminding them that you expect a certain behavior in response to your command.
When you first start the marker training, there are no corrections. If you ask the dog to do something and they don’t do it, you say something like “Nope” or “Try again.” and move on. Say it in a matter-of-fact tone. Don’t get mad or scold. Trust me. If you are using a sufficiently high-valued treat, then withholding the treat reward is a form of correction.
Corrections in this context should only be given if you are 100% certain the dog knows what is being asked. If not, back to Step 1 – clicker/marker training. Dogs do not generalize well, so once your dog successfully sits in the living room, move to the kitchen. Move to every room in the house. Then walk out the front door. At some point, your dog will know what you’re asking but blow you off anyway. Then they get a correction.
The correction should fit the dog’s temperament and drive level. Some dogs just need a “No”. Others may require a pop on a prong collar. Some dogs might need to be put on a leash inside the house and all the toys are taken away. This is part of the art of dog training. It needs to be something the dog will remember the next time the same circumstance arises, but not so strong that the dog “shuts down” and is afraid to move for fear of getting another correction.
When you first start introducing corrections, keep your training sessions short. Only a minute or two. Then have a play break with rewards. These breaks keep the dog interested in the training sessions and reduce any stress that might arise with the corrections.
Proofing Against Distractions
And once you have your dog reliably sitting, lying down or coming to you with even low-level distractions, it’s time to increase the level of distraction. The eventual goal is to have a dog that will reliably obey your command no matter what.
This is a creative phase as you have to know your dog well enough to ramp up the distractions. For example, if food is your distraction, you might start with a low-valued food like their kibble. Then you could move on to a medium-value food like a peanut butter treat. Once you’ve passed that stage, you might try cubed chicken breast or raw beef or whatever is a high-valued food for your dog. These are just examples as every dog is different. For example, my previous dog would value the peanut butter treat over the cubed chicken breast. My current dog is the exact opposite.
As always, you want to set up your dog for success. That’s why it is so important to start slow and gradually build the level of distraction. Frequently, this stage involves higher-valued rewards given more frequently. The promise of getting your reward has to be more exciting than that squirrel running across the yard!
This is where you will hear the word “engagement” being used. Engagement means that you are the strongest motivator in the dog’s environment. When your dog is fully engaged with you, they are completely unaware of anything else around them. There are several ways to teach and heighten engagement with your dog. Training is a game and when done correctly it is so much fun for the dog that there are no distractions!
The key to creating the best family dog is training. And the easiest, most successful training path is one that uses the 3 steps outlined above. First, teach the dog a command using positive reinforcement. Praise the dog when they get it right. Only after the dog has demonstrated that it knows what you want it to do, add leash corrections to keep the dog focused. During this phase introduce progressively engaging distractions.
If you’re new to all this, the most important thing to remember is to go slowly — very slowly. As a “rule” of thumb, 10 perfect successes before you raise the bar. If you raise the bar too much too quickly, you’ll just confuse your best friend. And how, despite our best intentions, we confuse our best friends is an entire post in itself!
Finally, remember that training your dog is an ongoing lifelong activity. Just because your dog sat for you last week/month/year, doesn’t mean they’ll do it now! You’ll always be refreshing their behavior. And as long as training is always a good time, you’re both going to have fun!