Civilizing Your Dog...
There are various approaches to dog training, a.k.a., teaching, educating, shaping, behavior
modification,.. whatever the "correct" term of the day is. It helps to know something about them in
making the right choice for yourself and your dog.
The two fundamental approaches divide trainers into one class and behaviorists in another, with each
often arguing against the other. Some behaviorists consider training to be uneducated, authoritarian
and inhumane; trainers sometimes view behaviorists as ineffective, or impractical. In the quest for
canine civility, it's not easy to distinguish the helpful from the hype. Putting it all in perspective and
effectively to use, can be quite challenging.
The common tendency among both groups is to approach canine learning by formula, regardless of
breed or individual differences. Useful as formulas are, this doesn't take into account the wide
variation in breed purpose and sensitivity, desire to please, food orientation, as well as canine
individuality. In spite of potential shortcomings it usually works well enough, but what about when it
doesn't? Instead of a pleasure, pets then become problems and we don't know which way to turn.
Both training and behavioristic instructions occasionally seem as if created from a theory, rather than
hands-on dog experience. Often it is our failure to understand or carry out the instructions correctly,
other times it is the failure of the instructions themselves.
As with technology and culture, there have been great advances in the last 20 or 30 years in working
with dogs. This is mostly due to increased understanding of the canine brain and how learning
occurs, (in people too). Some changes, however, are driven by a different agenda, creating a climate
of political correctness regarding animals. This dictates using methods that aren't exactly "results
driven", which sometimes leads to frustratingly slow work for the novice hoping to create a civilized pet.
By understanding the rationale behind the methods, it helps us to use them more effectively.
1)Behaviorism: A widely favored approach, considered to be humane and progressive, it relies
entirely on positive reinforcement (strengthening) of desired behavior and withdrawing
attention/affection or redirecting (focusing) dog's attention to something else when it is doing
something undesired (instead of corrections and punishments). Food treats, praise, and play used as
incentives, motivate dogs to alter their behavior toward a desired goal. Incentives can be anything
the dog enjoys, but the proper connection must be made with the desired behavior. This association
can be enhanced and simplified by a method called "clicker training", which substitutes a click noise
for the reinforcing incentive. The words "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong" have judgements
attached, creating an emotional interference with getting results, so are replaced with neutral words
to change people's thinking (or "clicks" as reinforcements). See "Clicker training".. The dog is seen to
some degree as an equal in the family. The pet's wishes and "rights" are respected and responded
to, much as an adult family member. It is believed that corrections/punishments are viewed as a
betrayal of the possibly fragile trust, which will cause the dog to live in fear and anxiety.
2)Some positive-reinforcement behaviorists and teachers also use deterrents, (not punishment), by
using such things as water spray bottle, or shaker cans (can with pennies in it, shaking makes
3)Training: Then there are those who still believe in the "wolf pack" metaphor* for the human family
and its pet. This is based on theory that the dog as a pack animal, relates to the human family as its
"pack" members, and a human must be the alpha leader or the dog will naturally try to take on that
role. Dogs have an inborn need for leadership and pecking order for their world to feel normal and
secure. Note:there has been recent evidence apparently discrediting this view of canine behavior and
can be explored by googling "The Myth of Dominance. The wolf pack hierarchy approach is based on
training and shaping the dog's actions to the leader's expectations, (within reason), just as an alpha
wolf keeps its pack conforming to etiquette and hierarchy, and corrects, or swiftly punishes if one gets
out of line. Wolves are close-knit and affectionate with complex social orders, but leaders do not
tolerate certain lines being crossed. Puppies are an exception. The entire pack is quite tolerant with
4)Some trainers combine methods, using what they find effective from any and all approaches. If you
decide to enroll in obedience classes, it is wise to ask what approach is used. Sensitive, shy dogs
can't handle certain methods, loud voices, or even a class atmosphere sometimes, while aggressive
dogs need a class trainer with extra experience specifically with aggression.
There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the behaviorism vs. training issue; the more radical
behaviorists have brought the very root concept of "training" into question. Even the humble
water-filled spray bottle (which in a different context is recommended for dogs as pleasant in hot
weather) and shaker can (simply a noisemaker) used as deterrents are labeled cruel and inhumane
by one highly respected dog expert, as expressed on a recent TV appearance.
Sometimes, even if done properly, this well-promoted, entirely positive behaviorism doesn't work. A
well-mannered pet doesn't come nearly as easily without the judicious use of corrections and
deterrents. "Positive reinforcement only" in general works well, but can be complicated and
time-consuming, especially when there are things the dog would rather do than any reward you offer.
This can tax the average pet parent dealing with problems that require extra time and patience.
Since options are constrained within this newer, radical view of dog's "rights", a novice using such
methods may eventually give up on their dog.
Of the methods described, which approach feels right for you personally? An even bigger question is
what will be effective, and complementary to the temperament and personality of the individual dog?
From careful observations of hundreds of dogs, from many breeds, training clearly is more effective
when adapted to the individual dog and its breed rather than simply applying a formula. I believe in
doing what works. Try different methods. Use ones that work whether widely favored or not. After
being absolutely certain it is being done correctly, quickly discard what doesn't work, think creatively,
use imagination. If any method has a negative effect on dog's behavior or mood, or on you, stop it
immediately. One trainer had a problem with a dog jumping and scratching on the door. Nothing
standard worked. He found a creative solution with that particular dog by putting balloons all over the
door that popped when the dog jumped on them. This however, would be considered inhumane by
many people. The basics follow.
The following basic principles are recognized by virtually all canine professionals, regardless of their
differences. Most of these principles are sound enough to even apply to human communication and
relationships, not just between human and dogs.
As a child, I learned from both animal behavior books and from being with animals. Combining certain
behavioristic and training basics, (with awareness of psychology) effectively improved my human
relationships in later life as well as producing exciting results with my animals. The primary object is
not actually changing others, canine or human. It's noticing our own actions, retraining ourselves to
become clear communicators, to become aware of the actual effect we have on others, not just the
effect we think we are having. It is becoming skilled at paying attention to our words and actions,
instead of speaking and acting reflexively as if on "automatic". By examining our actions and
reactions, we can determine what effect they are having and if it is the desired one. If not, we then
have the information we need in order to get different results.
Overall, listening is ultimately even more important than what we say (no apology to the deaf because
they "listen" in other ways). Listening is a skill most people lack, and must be cultivated. We learn by
necessity early in life to "tune out" people, sounds, news, teachers, employers, politicians, family
members, and anything unpleasant, as we are bombarded with irrelevant, distracting, and often
highly stressful input. Unfortunately we learn to tune out our pets too. Most harmful of all, we often
tune out ourselves. We don't listen to what our senses intuitively tell us about our environment,
Shutting out certain input or tuning it out, is not to be confused with simply intending to place our
attention on one thing over another. If we shut out input, we shut the door without conscious intent,
we diminish awareness of our surroundings. When certain urgent or valuable data comes "across the
wire" we may not be able to get the message.
True listening isn't widely valued since it's often hard to see how it will benefit the listener. Intention to
put our focus on another, (instead of self-centered, being "other-centered") takes a degree of effort
we'd rather not make when we don't have to. It's easier and seems more rewarding on the surface at
least, to focus on ourselves. But that very focus itself tends to be only surface, we shut out deeper,
even more significant, information that we send to ourselves.
In place of real listening, we classify, generalize, categorize, and stereotype all sorts of things, events
and people, very efficiently streamlining our experience without even having to think about it. This
helps us function, but as a result we close our minds and senses to rich and varied information that
fills in details as well as adds dimension and depth to our experience. We tend to just skim the
surface of both others and our environment.
Animal "psychics" may simply pay attention, be able to notice, observe, tune in, in the way we all
fundamentally are capable of. True "listening" is with our whole self, not just the ears, combining
intuition, sensing, noticing, being tuned in, and putting all inner mental "chatter" aside. Listening is
essential to being fully alive, to appreciating the uniqueness of any experience or individual. And it is
essential to intimacy, which every one of us deeply craves and hungers for, (yet fears) whether we
know it or not. By truly listening, we deepen and improve relationships, are better able to identify
dangerous people and situations, and our better-behaved dogs are very grateful!
When words and actions are in alignment, are well timed and clear, they are as powerfully effective as
an arrow sent straight and swift to the bullseye. When there is contradiction between word and action,
the arrow does not go straight to the target, if it reaches the target at all. Listening and paying
attention helps reveal which target to aim at, and its exact position. This creates more gratifyingly
effective interactions between us, others, our pets and our environment. These principles are
infinitely well worth the self-discipline needed to put into practice.
We are constantly adjusting our behavior in response to pleasant or unpleasant feedback
(reinforcement/aversion) from others, just as others are with us. We do this to varying degrees to fit
each person as we learn about interacting with them, or as some say, we teach others how to treat
us, as they teach us how to treat them. Dogs also, can teach their human families to perform on cue,
sometimes better than the humans train their dogs. Each time the dog paws or nudges your hand
and you start petting in response, you are performing on cue. Each time your dog brings you a ball
and "begs" you to throw it, which you then do, you are being trained. The dog is sending a message,
and you comply, and it is mutually rewarding and good. An undesirable mutual training/learning,
occurs when your puppy is lonely in a laundry room by itself crying and howling pathetically. Feeling
for his loneliness you go to comfort him. He is joyful to see you which pleases (rewards) you for
saving him. He has just learned to call you and you will come get him. This will eventually become a
problem when you have no choice but to leave him alone, creating much greater distress for both of
you than ever before. A more serious "wrong message" is sent when your dog is chewing a bone, you
touch him and he growls slightly, which leads you to instinctively withdraw your hand. You may think
you are "respecting his wishes" or giving him space, or maybe you are even afraid. Your dog is
training you and this in turn, trains your dog. He learns he is the boss and to expect you to be
submissively obedient. He may sense fear and that cements the message more. If the dog is already
a dominant type, it reinforces the dog's alpha status in the family, which can be dangerous*. Any
unwanted emerging behavior should cause you to first ask yourself what you did to possibly teach it.
Dogs make associations between behavior and things that occur simultaneously or within seconds of
the action. In training, if the timing is off, the intended connection is not made, and an unwanted one
results. A well-timed message, effectively reinforced, followed through with future consistency, gets
results. This is the keystone of effective dog training. Words, rewards, praise or corrections are
worse than useless with bad timing. If training seems ineffective, ask yourself "what am i really
communicating? What am i actually reinforcing?" This is a worthy question to ask ourselves
periodically in our human relationships also.
Scenario: A spouse comes home from work, the couple immediately unload the stresses of the day on
each other instead of having an initial, positive experience together, to reconnect in those first few
moments. This is unintentionally reinforcing something draining and negative about the return home.
Couples often talk over problems in bed before going to sleep. This is not a constructive association
to have with romance or sleep. This sort of unintended negative association goes on constantly with
families, friends, co-workers, as well as our pets. [*Dominant dogs require expert behavioristic handling]
Communication, when unclear, fails to communicate! Just to have "sent a message" isn't enough, we
have to see that it was received. If not, then examine how/why it failed. Learning to become clearer in
sending messages, to our pets, spouses, friends, and the world around us, is guaranteed to benefit
many times over. As we begin to pay attention, we often discover that others are actually receiving a
different message than one we thought we sent. Contradictory underlying wishes and actions within
ourselves frequently interfere with our intent. These should be examined and resolved/removed
where possible. Conduct, actions, words, must all be in alignment to carry the full power and intent of
the message. With our pet, when we know our message and timing are right, yet still not getting
results, It may be due to inconsistency. Perhaps we get lazy, or on the phone, too tired, or busy, and
we don't insist on the dog's compliance with a rule or an order, then it undoes our previous efforts.
The dog will learn something, a message will be received, but not the one intended. The dog learns
all the time...if we don't make sure its learning what is desired, it will learn something undesirable.
In contrast however, an inconsistent treat, or varied reward, is more effective than a predictable one
(since dog may not be hungry, or may be bored with that specific treat) keeping it a little surprising is
proven to work better. Another common reason for training to fail is if the incentive to do the desired
action is outweighed by a greater desire to do something else. If this is the case, find ways to
create a stronger incentive to do what is desired, and/or a stronger deterrent or correction.
People say "you are only as good as your word". Our word can be strong and respected, or it can be
weak and empty. We often go on and on, when instructing, reprimanding, critiquing. It's just
meaningless to the canine ear, and leads both dogs and people to tune the speaker out, sapping
power from the important key words and message. Nowadays we think so little of, or about, what we
say, that lying is widely accepted. We often hear in the movies the shameless statement, "So, I lied!".
We may threaten our misbehaving teens, "you'll be grounded for months!" but actually have no
intention of being so harsh and they know it. But what we say DOES indeed matter. Imagine if
everything we ever said was recorded and "auditors" weighed and evaluated it all, holding us
accountable. In essence, we are either building or diminishing the quality and value of our words,
and thus, of ourselves and others. Imagine that each word counts, because it does.
For training purposes, keep praise, corrections and commands short, and the same each time.
The most important power "leak" is not following through. With dogs, this undoes previous efforts.
Avoid telling the dog to do something when not in a position to back it up if the dog doesn't comply.
Scenario: a male dog gets loose and takes off after a female in heat. Knowing the power of the
motivation, it's likely he won't come when called. Calling more than once if he isn't responding,
weakens your word, weakens the message. Find another way to get him back or call him when he is
It's always good to have a treat ready in a pocket to reinforce desired behavior. When it occurs
naturally, unasked, say the word for that action and immediately reward. Whenever a correction is
made, end it on a positive note by waiting a few seconds for learning to sink in, then tell the dog to do
something pleasant and easy, and praise happily when its done. In other words, when the dog has
done something undesirable, have it end with a positive . Beginning and ending our interactions with
a pleasant connecting experience is important. It benefits both human and canine, and perhaps is the
principle in "hello" and "goodbye".
In closing, my intent is to communicate with you, the reader, both a universal concept and a more
effective way to create a civilized pet. If you have suggestions or what i say interests you, I would
appreciate hearing from you!...
Eye contact is valuable in most training. The dog's attention must be on the person for it to learn.
Some highly relational dogs naturally look at your face, and dominant dogs tend to do this also, while
submissive dogs tend to avert their eyes. Still others seem to pay attention to everything else instead
of the person. For these last types, say the dog's name or make a noise, when the dog looks, makes
eye contact, praise and give a treat. This is just to get them started giving full attention when spoken
to with certain tones or words.
|Behaviorism vs. Training- Contrasting Methods and Beliefs
|Why Make this Effort?
|Timing and Consistency (What Am I Reinforcing?)
|The Power of Your Word
|Doing What Works