How to train a dog

How to train a dog  – part 1

A dog is a relatively straightforward creature, whose behaviour is driven almost entirely by what could be described as gaining reward and avoiding ‘punishment’ (more accurately, avoiding bad things happening). In many ways this is true of humans as well, except that we then moderate our behaviour through cognition. The easiest way to think of your dog in terms of his behaviour, is to try to ascertain two things:

  1. What reward does he get from a particular behaviour (or set of behaviours)? And/or
  2. What negative consequence is he trying to avoid by behaving in this way?

This sounds easy until we consider our own ability to bestow our dogs with human-like cognitions. When asking how to train a dog to any new behaviour – or away from any nuisance behaviour – we should begin by asking what the behaviour means to the dog. What is his motivation.

Example: A destructive “home-alone” dog may cringe and look guilty on our return, but not because she knows that she’s done something wrong. Indeed the destructive behaviour may have occurred sometime before our return and is already forgotten by the dog. It was just a comforting behaviour (the reward) in the anxiety (or boredom) of being left alone. Indeed, if we come cheerfully and without reaction into the scene of destruction the dog will be entirely focussed on greeting us as usual (reward), and will do nothing to try to avoid bad things happening, because there are (in her mind) no reason for bad things to happen at that moment of joyous re-union. But we don’t! Either we arrive home on edge, anticipating what may have happened in our absence, or we see the destruction and react with horror/anger/frustration. The dog doesn’t know why, but senses entirely our displeasure and reacts with submissive appeasing behaviours, such as making themselves look smaller, lip licking, avoiding eye contact, even passing urine if we’ve really scared them. From then on homecoming has the potential for bad things to happen, and becomes a time of joy mixed with anxiety. They become very sensitive to our ‘tone’ and react accordingly. It’s easy for us to think that they are thinking “I’ve done wrong” when in fact they are just aware that *something* is wrong.

How to train your dog. Teach him to look to you for instruction.
Two dogs listening to their human

A dog doesn’t understand the difference between naughty and good. She only knows how to be a dog and a dog will often chew when she is bored, lonely or anxious. The chewing isn’t naughty, any more than a toddler at playgroup sucking his thumb is naughty… it’s a doggie way of dealing with stress, or creating self comfort/pleasure. That’s a big reward. If we don’t want a dog to chew our stuff we need to relieve its boredom/loneliness/anxiety in ways that we find acceptable. Offer a bigger, better reward that will bring its own comfort and stimulation.

And then there is the language barrier. Almost all doggie ‘disobedience’ is the result of canine confusion, rather than stubbornness or naughtiness. We ask dogs to do all kinds of things without really bothering to show them what we want. We assume their understanding of some of our words is – at least to a degree – the same as ours. Not so. Take the confusion generated by our use of the one word that is their name.

Example: We bring home our gorgeous puppy and part of the huge excitement is choosing a name. For us naming things is meaningful. Our name is deeply embedded in who we are and who we are perceived to be by others. So the puppy (let’s call him Stanley) gets a name that has meaning to us, and then…

(happy, excited tone) Hello Stanley!

(anxious, alarmed tone) Stanley! Stanley! Don’t do that!

(angry, frustrated tone) Oh Stanley… outside now!

(increasingly desperate tone) Stan…ley… Stanley come… Stanley come here… Stanley! Now!… STANLEY!

Now… assume you cannot rationalise language. That it only has meaning to you if it’s taughtattached to something precise and used consistently. Then look at what we’ve taught Stanley about his name? Absolutely nothing, except that it’s a sound he hears a lot that has zero – or worse – confused meaning… white noise! This is how to train a dog *not* to listen.

A dog cannot understand the concept of a name. His name must *mean* something to him to be of any importance. The most logical and helpful meaning we can attach to it is probably “look at me” (I want your attention). Then we can get Stanley’s attention in any situation and once we have it, follow his name with another appropriate taught command, depending on the situation. In reality, the most common meaning we often attach to it is “come here”, (95% of clients interviewed use their dog’s name for recall), which is fine until we also use it to tell him off or ask him to stop doing something. Imagine if, in his doggie mind, Stanley learns that “Stanley” means “come here” and we then say “Stanley, get on your bed” in a stern voice and point away from us! Confusion, confusion, confusion. Many dogs don’t do what they are asked to do because they don’t really understand what we want from them.

So keep language simple. One word is better than two and two are better than a sentence. Remember also, that dogs don’t understand language on any level. It’s white noise. They need to be clearly and consistently taught what a word means, by attaching it to an action, and we do this best by using their natural pursuit of reward and (on occasion) avoidance of bad things happening (and I *don’t* mean punishment). We’ll talk about *how* to train a dog in the next post in this series.

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