This past weekend, I spent a phenomenal two days learning from world renowned and respected dog trainer, Denise Fenzi. Denise is an incredible handler and teacher who uses a deep understanding of dogs, clarity and fun in building strong and reliable behaviors.
“Training,” she reminded us at the outset, “should be the highlight of your dog’s day.”
That is such a powerful statement that gives much to think about. How often it is that people tell me their pet will only do what they want when they have food in their hands, but even then, their dog may check out of the lesson. Why does this happen, how can you instead make training fun and stimulating so that your dog will want to be an active participant in your classroom?
Let’s put this into human perspective for a minute. In what environments are you most stimulated to want to learn and excel? What are the traits of a teacher who instills in you a genuine love of learning? Are you more engaged when you are forced to do so or are doing so out of a sense of obligation, or are you more inclined to pay attention when it is your choice and you are greatly reinforced for your actions? Are you more apt to want to push yourself toward goals when those goals seem completely out of reach and the road to achieve them is very unclear, or do you work harder when you can see a path and you experience smaller achievements along the road?
Now, put yourself in the shoes of a dog living with an animal who speaks a foreign language, often keeps the rules hidden until you break one, and may simply expect you to know what they mean when they tell you to do something. It really does amaze me sometimes at how much our dogs are capable of learning from us under often very difficult learning environments.
As your dog’s handler, owner, teacher, and caregiver, every interaction you share with your pet is one that is capable of either strengthening or breaking down your relationship. Remember that every time your pet has a positive experience with its environment including getting something it values as a result of its behavior, your pet is learning to associate good stuff with that behavior…and if you are part of that consequence, then you can become super awesome from your dog’s point of view.
I digressed for a paragraph. Okay, so let’s think about how YOU can make training the highlight of your dog’s day. These are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
Four Tips For Improving Your Dog Training
Your mindset counts. When you go into training, is your focus on ‘making’ your dog do a certain behavior, forcing your dog to do what you want, or is it about having an awesome few minutes with your dog where you are both left wanting more? Often when teaching obedience behaviors (such as down, sit, stay, or leash walking) people tend to speak in more monotone or forceful tones, be more rigid, and smile less. However, when teaching trick behaviors people tend to smile more, speak in different tones, and even laugh some. The truth of the matter is that behavior is behavior. If you think about teaching leash skills or stay in the same way that you think about teaching roll over, both you and your student will be in a different frame of mind.
Incorporate fun and your dog’s Awesome List into your training. Speaking of changing your mindset when teaching controlled behaviors, Denise Fenzi teaches incorporating games into heeling exercises. After a good step or two in position, the handler can take out a tug toy, cue the dog to run around a cone, or toss a ball for example. Woaza does that build value for the wanted behavior! I’ve written about play numerous times on this blog. I love to use it in training because it has such potential for revving up the value of the wanted behavior I am teaching. It is the Premack Principle at its best. If you are unfamiliar, the Premack Principle basically states that the more probable behavior (like chasing a ball) will reinforce the less probable behavior (like sitting and staying). Remember that it is the consequences that make behavior more or less probable in the future, so to strengthen behaviors it is important to teach animals the contingency between their behavior and the valued consequence that comes immediately after the behavior. Therefore, knowing what your pet values is an important step toward positive training. I call this the Awesome List and wrote a post about it.
Train in an environment where your pet can focus on you and the lesson. Remember, your pet is constantly making choices based upon where the value is for it. If you are trying to teach your pet in a place where the environment has way more value than your lesson, you will not win and you probably will end up teaching your pet to ignore you while you end up being frustrated. In these cases, you may end up resorting to punitive strategies to force your dog back into giving you attention but anytime you teach with aversives, you get an animal who will only work to the level it needs in order to avoid punishment, who may become fearful or even reactive, and who will come to associate you with those negative experiences.
Break your lesson down in small chunks. As your pet’s teacher, it is your job to help your student succeed. Teaching a behavior in too big of steps, can make it too difficult to learn and when this happens your pet may become frustrated, and begin to bark or simply check out. Always think about how you can teach the behavior in the simplest way so that your pet can succeed and you can succeed. Shaping is a training strategy that involves teaching behaviors by breaking that final ‘target’ behavior down into smaller increments known as successive approximations and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until the final target behavior is learned. It is like the hot-cold game we played as a child and it is a lot of fun.
Are you ready to make your dog’s day? Great, time to go train!