Have you ever thought about how your dogs feels? I can imagine a sea of dog owners and trainers across the globe, all responding in unison ‘Of course I do’….
However, lets take this a stage further…
Have you ever though about how your dogs feels about the reinforcement you have chosen? Have you created the ‘right feelings towards the reinforcement?’
Does the dog have the appropriate feelings about the reinforcement and the way in which you deliver it?
This may sound somewhat cryptic, but as with all life lessons… I am having this one reaffirmed to me at present as I train my three (that’s right…. I said three) puppies!
Foundations for any sport is like building a house, without it being solid and firm your house will likely topple down. So often people are thinking about the colour of walls, rather then foundations, and risk the whole building falling down! For my dogs, how they respond and react to the reinforcement is part of this foundations.
At the moment I am training three young dogs, two Border Collies and my Malinois, Jungle. My primary focus is building foundations and creating the correct feelings about and for reinforcement.
My 10month Border Collie Puppy Hottie was a phenomenal tiny puppy! Amazingly clever and bright, played incredibly well, food driven, clear headed and had a super temperament… perfect! What more could I want! Things were going remarkably well… until she started teething.
The first indication that she was having a tough time teething was her loss of appetite. She went from a dog would eat with the appetite of a labrador, to a dg that would walk away from her food or pick at it.
In herself, she was well and as I raw fed, appeared to love frozen treats. This made complete sense with the discomfort she clearly felt.
I could see her gums were swollen and sore, and her sibling appeared to have issues teething too.
At this time, I generally stop training my puppies and let them be ‘dogs’. This isn’t unusual for a pup, and often when left alone, they come through teething and swiftly revert back.
However, Hottie was different. She became ultra sensitive to food and toys, and hands moving around her mouth and face. Whilst she wasn’t worried or frightened, she was definitely reluctant to tug or take food when I offered either long after all her teeth had settled.
This affected her desire to train and engage. Even though she hadn’t had any negative experiences within the training itself, because she understood that this were available as reinforcement, she became reluctant to train because of the potential of them being presented.
Imagine going to your favourite restaurant, where you normally have your favourite meal but on this occasion, you order that meal and get food poisoning. Would you want to go to that restaurant again? Or would you go and avoid that dish? Either way, your experience of that restaurant has been tarnished. The service may have been excellent and the atmosphere perfect, but the feelings caused by the meal made all the difference.
This was essentially what happened to Hottie.
She associated training with how she felt about food and toys… and she felt a great deal of discomfort and pain.
As a reinforcement based dog trainer, this is a huge concept to embrace as pain and discomfort are not things I utilise with my dogs. Yet, here I was with a puppy who ‘felt’ both of these associated with training.
In contrast, Jungle my malinois is SO aroused by toys and even the prospect of them being on offer, that she instantly spikes in her arousal if I incorporate them in her training. This instantly creates changes in behaviour and loss of accuracy. So we have had to address her ‘feelings’ towards the toy. Her desire for a toy, borders on obsession but without the ability to think and listen in their presence, this obsession is counterproductive.
The ‘feelings’ your dogs has towards reinforcement bleeds into the work, in both a positive and negative manner. If the dogs ‘feelings’ towards the reinforcement hasn’t been as trained as the behaviour itself, you risk having unwanted ‘feelings’ developing towards the work.
This is particularly apparent with sports dogs, where frustration is a common technique to build desire for the reinforcement. This ‘feeling’ of frustration can bleed into the work… and this can easily create a ‘stacking’ of frustration if the training or teaching, in itself is creating frustration. This is typical seen in dogs that don’t willingly release toys on cue, the conflict about the release can bleed into their ‘work’.
How your dog ‘feels’ about the reinforcement will affect the dogs ‘feelings’ about training and therefore competing. This, coupled with the challenges presented in competition can be a cocktail of tension!
Working on clear skills and understanding of reinforcement strategies and criteria, BEFORE using them, is a crucial often over looked component to preventing unwarranted frustration and confusion.
It can prevent over arousal issue, displacement, shut down, frustration… the list goes on.
Feelings matter. Plain and simple.