Thinking Dogs

Sunday, January 08, 2017 12:30 AM | Bob Self (Administrator)

Training in its simplest context is to get the dog to react reliably to a verbal command or physical signal. This is accomplished in two general areas. In one area the dog is forced to remain in place. These exercises are known as static exercises and are taught largely by compulsion. The other, and often more difficult area is the dynamic or moving exercises. In these exercises the dog must be motivated to do the trainer’s bidding, such as coming when called or heeling off leash.

Most training consists of a primary inducement that forces the dog to do something and this is accompanied by the secondary command. All force used in teaching a dynamic exercise is accompanied by praise.  To illustrate this let us teach the dog to sit. From a standing position, the trainer forces the dog into a sitting position, and accompanies this action with the verbal command “sit” followed by praise, “good boy”. In sequence the dog must sit because of the force: simultaneously, the dog hears the command.  This is immediately followed by the release of pressure and the praise (which are both pleasurable experiences). It isn’t long until the dog realizes the consequence of its action. As it hears “sit”, the trainer has to apply less and less force until finally the dog sits on the sound alone.

This is a danger point for many trainers because they come to believe that once a dog performs an act on command, it “knows” the action and should do it from them on. This is not true. The dog never “knows” in the same sense that a human does. Trainers are developing in the dog conditioned responses. The first response merely shows progress is being made. The dog has done the trainer's bidding one time after a certain sequence and in one environment.  But, it is a long way from being reliably trained. It could take several hundred (or even several thousand) repetitions before the act becomes so habitual that the dog is reliable under any and all circumstances.

We often explain dog training in terms (often abstract) that we feel will convey meaning to other humans.  However this can be dangerous, especially if taken literally.  Dogs do not think in abstract terms. If a human hears 2, 4, 6, he mentally thinks 8, 10, etc. The dog does not have this ability. The dog must be taught every single act as a small, separate and distinct entity. The trainer can later assemble these parts into a total exercise, but even the assembly process must be taught over a period of time and in the proper sequence.

The way a dog learns may be illustrated by the following example. The dog is taught to heel on our left side: and after many sessions, the dog will associate the sound “heel” with this position while walking. Now the trainer is going to have the dog go from a sitting position from in front when commanded. Yet it will not. The dog cannot transpose meanings; it must be taught to make all the movements needed to go from the front position to the heel position. Each and every step must be taught in small increments.

You cannot talk a dog into performing any act: your voice merely conveys pleasure, displeasure, or sometimes neutrality. As dogs cannot think in abstract terms, they are not trained by explaining to them vocally. As a matter of fact, talking can produce a result that is directly opposite of the trainer’s wishes. To illustrate this point assume that a very shy dog is brought into strange surroundings.  The trainer then wishes the dog to sit beside him. The dog hides behind the misguided trainer who immediately notices the shyness and tries to verbally reassure the dog that everything is okay and nothing will harm it.  No one would criticize the trainer's intent, but the technique is wrong. The dog accepts the pleasant, consoling voice as a reward for its hiding behavior.  As such the behavior becomes reinforced instead of eliminated.

Dogs don’t communicate in abstract words, and yet trainers must establish voice control. The dog can learn to associate the command word with the desired action or response. One of the most important commands it can learn is “No,” which means stop. That’s all the dog can understand.  "No" does not mean that dog is bad or that it should stop what is unwanted and do what the trainer wants. It only means Stop.  Initially the command “No” is only used on static exercises until its meaning to the dog is absolute.

A dog cannot be half-trained. Many of the instructions may seem unimportant or unnecessary for what various individuals want their dogs to do. However, small deviations in initial training will come back to haunt the trainer later. Everything a dog is taught is built on prior training, and all are links to a solid foundation that will support future training the dog will receive.

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