Comfortably uncomfortable

As a dog trainer/owner/coach and teacher, there is what question that I am asked more then any other. It is the question that I am asked most, by those that are curios about my training or unsure about the results that reinforcement based dog training can achieve.

The conversation usually goes a little something like this:

Interested party: “So I get that you can get your dog to do those tricks, and behaviours… I get that… I REALLY DO…. BUT, what do you do when they don’t do it?”

Me: “well it would depend….”

Interested party: “ Depends on what……?”

Me: “In depends on what they dog does, and why”

Interested party: “Yeh, I get that… BUT… I mean when the dog just says NO”

Me: “It depends…”

Interested party: “Yeh yeh yeh… BUT When the dog just doesnt do it”

Me: “It depends :)”

Interested party: “FGS I get that, it depends… BUT, what do you do when the dog just says no, I am not doing it?”

Me: “Well I would ask a question of the dog… and depending on the answer, decide how to progress….”

Interested party: “Oh I knew it…. So you do make your dog do it”

Me: “No, I make the dog WANT to do it ;)”

This is the question that I get asked countless times, and if I had a pound for every time that this happened, I would be floating in a yacht in the south of France.

However, it is a legitimate question.

Countless books have been written about what you do to create behaviour, but little is discussed about what to do when it falls apart or you hit a cross roads (obviously MY BOOK Pathway to Positivity covers this extensively ;))

What do you do when you hit a point in your training when the dog doesnt do as you have asked or trained, or expect. How do you deal with the dog that says ’No thanks’ under the premise of reinforcement based dog training? We have committed ourselves to following this path of training, come what may… but what do you do when it all falls apart?

So firstly, take a deep breath. Its only dog training. Its fixable and resolvable. Even if the dogs inappropriate response to what you ask, is a regression in their behaviour, take a deep breath and maybe have a glass of some medicinal beverage… but either way. Lets see it for what it is.

A dog that doesnt do as we ask, can be whittle down to 5 distinct areas:

⁃ Lack of motivation

⁃ Lack of understanding

⁃ Lack of Boundaries

⁃ Lack of Relationship

⁃ Lack of physical ability

First review these areas, and make objective decisions.

If there is a lack of any of the above, that can be easily resolved. So lets assume that you have diligently reviewed the above, and you still get an incorrect response.

This is when I employ what I refer to as the ‘success protocol’. This is a systematic manner to work through any problem, without making it a knee jerk reaction, and potentially creating long term damage.

When the dog makes a mistake which is out of character or unusual, I may simply choose to totally ignore the error. Dogs are dogs, and sometimes they, like us, make mistakes. This would be dictated by the level of training and knowledge, the dog has.

If the error, persists. Review your training. Reinforcement builds behaviour. But is what you are reinforcing, what you wanted?

However, even with all these careful and cautious steps and analysing, it is not uncommon for the behaviour not to be ‘performed’.

This is when it can get sticky. Now what do trainers who subscribe to reinforcement based dog training, do?

Well first, don’t reinforce the behaviour. This may seem obvious, but trainers who gravitate to reinforcement based training, have this over riding need desire to reinforce the dog, despite what they do. This is often based in the fear that the dog will stop wanting to engage or the emotional impact it may cause. However think of the confusion this may cause by reinforcing a behaviour you ‘don’t’ want. Even for ultra sensitive dogs, this can create a huge amount of confusion. With these types of dogs, you may not make a huge issue of the error or even ignore it, but avoid reinforcing a ‘mistake’. End your session, abort the plan but avoid reinforcing for the sake of it.

You can try something else the dog can do, and reinforce that behaviour. Or go back a stage in your training to where the dog is confident and run through the steps, but what I refer to as ‘fast tracking’.

Each behaviour performed for a low level reinforcement until we are at the point where the dog struggles.

The part that a lot of people struggle with, is when the dog becomes visibly stressed or uncomfortable.

It may be where your dog is out of their comfort zone, or where a situation arises you haven’t planned for.

It happens. Unfortunately, dog training isn’t always a distinct line from start to finish. How I wish it was!!! But often a situation arises where my dogs show confusion, or uncertainty about what I am asking.

In this circumstances there are key things to remember.

⁃ Its not personal. As much as you may feel like it is, it really isn’t. It’ll be fine.

⁃ Focus on the behaviour and don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement.

⁃ Support the dog. This means being clear and fair about what you want.

⁃ The dog can do it. If you have trained diligently, and the dog has sufficient reinforcement available, it will work it out.

⁃ Know when to stick and know when to twist! Sometimes in training you make a decision that creates a moment where the dog may doubt themselves, this isn’t unusual. And sometimes you need to work through or around the issue. Think, plan and do!

⁃ Review your videos from previous session, if may explain the confusion.

⁃ Only ever ask a question of your dog that have every chance of answering. The question doesn’t have to be ‘easy’, but it must ALWAYS be fair!

⁃ Celebrate the success!! If the dog overcomes a challenge, let them know!!! Go mad! Pay BIG!

⁃ Make it worth their while to want to answer the question with the right response, by paying exceptionally well! Don’t skimp! There has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if they come through the ‘storm’!

⁃ It’s about the journey, not the destination! If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it!

One Reply to “Comfortably uncomfortable”

  1. I use a thing called turning away. It is a horse term and describes just leaving the horse without any further training for a longish time, maybe two weeks. When you go back to the training the horse seems to have processed your training as if by magic and can do it.
    I works the same with dogs. Give the training for a particular exercise a rest for a few weeks and you will be surprised what they have remembered.


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