Language

How we label, refer and view a process will have an effect on how we employ it. Words have powerful meanings that can be quite different depending on your culture, your background and your experience. But language matters, and the following are just some examples of terms we might want to consider:

Command

In dog training, we don’t regard ourselves as masters giving out orders, no more than we perceive our dogs as soldiers in the field of science. Stimulus is the common term and in dog training we now hear the cue as the most usable jargon.

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Mechanics

Good mechanics? Yes, indispensible for the operation of machinery. Totally inappropriate when it comes to our dogs’ learning: the dog who responds to a cue with a sigh, looks away, places their butt to the floor and generally sags. The recall that sees a dog ambling towards Person, eyes roving around on the journey. A paw wave lacking any enthusiasm. Side by side walking where neither party seem to be aware of the other. Pretty much the same way you do the washing up – job done, a chore, necessary, no enjoyment, no pleasure. Why on earth would anyone wish to employ “good mechanics” in the process of teaching a dog, rearing a youngster, building behaviours?

If we live in the world of truly positive then an expression of pleasure when rewarding the dog is at the core of the process. Do we look for “expressions of pleasure” needing to be mechanical? Please, no.Your dog is looking for your pleasure in their effort and achievement. If the response is purely mechanical then we are missing the essence of joy both teacher and learner gains from the interaction.

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Trainer or Engineer of Learning?

For too long we have been labelling ourselves as “Trainers” or “Teachers”: a very egocentric description of a process that is really centred around the learner—in this case, the dog. Training, even within the positive sphere, still implies an agenda of “dog will do….” and of conforming to a trainer’s ideal rather than “be the best who-ever-you-are going to be”. I like to regard a teacher of dogs as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world. This means we need to explore dogs, how they learn, how they function to become who they are, and equally have all the skills at our finger tips to assist that process.

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Tricks

We cannot teach something just for fun, it can never be just a trick, that is like saying you are going teach a child to cross a road, read a book, ride a bike for fun – it doesn’t have to be “done properly” because it is only a trick. This term “trick” is often designed to appeal to nonspecialists. It can also imply that the purpose is to entertain for the modern circus known as YouTube. But whether we are talking about jumping skills, mixing with excited children, alerting on substances or halting at a roadside, all that we teach a dog should be taught with the same standard. They cannot know when to try their best and when it is just for fun, but they can pick up our intent.

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Rewards

Folk still get hung up about delivering reinforcers of extra value for extra effort, jackpotting, or feed within 3 seconds, pushing the food at the dog to prevent “anything else” getting reinforced. When these well-intentioned guidelines get carved into stone the system is in trouble, veering into the realm of magic and witchcraft.

Click-and-Dump

Training through positive reinforcement is much, much more than giving a treat. I want you to ask yourself:

“How much pleasure is the dog getting”?

In training I see the click-and-dump process missing out on the central component of this reinforcement actually being rewarding for the dog. This may mean giving something extra beside food – a connection for a few seconds, verbal happiness, a small chase, a catch. Activity and interaction are often craved by the dog when food alone seems to be a put down. No wonder we find some dogs who find they “don’t like food” when it comes to training.

The delivery of that treat can become a highly valued process, eagerly sought by the dog because the delivery involves so much more than “dump-and-swallow”. It involves engagement from Their Person, who is probably the most valuable resource in that dog’s life – the person that enjoys their company, gives affection, provides security and a sense of belonging. To deliver a treat AND LOOK AWAY, is an insult. Like shaking hands on greeting but talking to another person at the same time. It completely devalues the process, but I see it far too regularly.

Just delivering a treat is not enough.

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Rates of Reinforcement

A rate of reinforcement, or a rate of anything can only be measured when we know what it is measured against.

A “high rate of reinforcement” absolutely does not mean fast. It means a rate relative to the number of behaviours occurring. This is not measured in numbers per minute. A tortoise can have a high rate of reinforcement with one behaviour, one delivery per minute. If a leg moves (12 seconds) and it is marked, and a piece of lettuce delivered, that animal may take 40 seconds to eat that reinforcer.

“Clicks per minute” are only comparative to what was happening in the previous minutes. But without knowing how long a reinforcement process takes, measuring by clicks per minute is irrelevant. The behaviour may stay the same or improve, but if we have changed the pattern of reinforcement delivery and the dog needs to travel further to receive the treat, then the number of clicks per minute is going to reduce. We should be examining how the behaviour is carried out and measuring progress in quality, flow, and confidence. NOT speed within a time frame.

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Three-Second Rule

The popular misunderstanding of “reinforcement within 3 seconds” shows limited understanding of the effect of anticipation . The “three second rule” suggests that the reinforcer should be given within 3 seconds of the click, or marker; this was probably suggested as a simplistic explanation for beginners.

There is no rule of “feed within 3 seconds”

The marker must connect to the behaviour, and to be effective it cannot be delayed or a separate event. But the actual delivery, or consumption of the reward can certainly occur well beyond the 3 seconds.

To not have those moments of anticipation, even lasting two minutes is cheating the dog out of much of the pleasure the anticipation of the reward will bring.

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Variable Schedules of Reinforcement

When we teach a class of people new to training with rewards, inevitably someone will want to know when they can stop giving food. There is a view that it is only temporary to be able to get what you want. My answer is to question when we can stop saying “thank you”. If someone has cooked dinner, opened a door, fetched a coffee when can you stop saying “thank you”? 

Yeah. Never. If you still want coffee.

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Learning Design

Error

Even though today we are surrounded by many available protocols for teaching with positive reinforcement, there is still a persistence that a dog should be set-up to make an error. The reasons for this are extensive:

  • “the dog needs to know when they are wrong so that they can focus on what is required”
  • “we are building resilience”
  • “this teaches a dog impulse control”

With this mindset underpinning the training, adding reinforcement to correct choices does not make it positive learning. Any time being wrong is deliberately included in the curriculum we are failing our learners. Sure, learning may be effective, unforgotten and lifelong but at a cost.

The cost can be a mistrust in the teacher. When the learner is faced with a new lesson they may first ask “what is the trap?” This is a negative view and likely to cause hesitation and a resistance to discovery and exploration. If you think your teacher is only setting you up for success you approach with an enthusiasm and eagerness for the learning.

All of us have been damaged by the error-trap. Whether it was deliberate on part of the teacher or not, it makes us cautious learners.

In addition to this approach to learning we then experience frustration, that can escalate to rage, when we cannot solve the error. If you have ever used a computer connected to a printer you have experienced this. And it wasn’t good.

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Silence

There are times when a flood of information is not useful, and as teachers we need to select the most salient information for that person, or dog, at that time, but a total absence of information does not serve learning progress.

The echo of trying to get something right and receiving silence as a response can be a destructive, soul stripping, failure of communication. I would never want to do that to my dogs.

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Protocols

Much of the material we integrate into our training, whether daily lifeskills, work or sports activities has reached from the world of science, usually in the form of rat in a box or pigeon on a table. (Search for BF Skinner demonstrating operant conditioning, many videos from the original experiments. Quite eye opening – but much coffee needed). These restricted environments were a necessary part of the research process of seeking evidence and we are indebted to the work of the scientists and how it has enriched our world of training and learning about dogs. But that doesn’t mean that we are bound by the methodologies or conclusions of those experiments.

80% Success

One element integral to these experiments was to measure their success by the rate of response, where 80% was calculated as successful. The rate of response was of a press of a lever or peck to a disc. How the behaviour was carried out was not measured – with joy, distress, pleasure or anxiety. These are factors we have an interest in monitoring today.

Here I need to explain the phrase “was of its time”, in other words, yes, it was accurate at that time with the knowledge and understanding of that time (1940 – 50s). With today’s knowledge, understanding and experience we can expand on that statement, ignore it or update it. Without doubt we should have moved on and not be still considering 80% a success rate or ignoring the emotional component, otherwise we are just coasting. The restrictions of research experiments and absence of other forms, or view, of what may constitute reinforcement should have been left behind as soon as we began to train our friends, or dogs, animals who share our lives.

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Building “Drive”

The protocol of arousing the dog, or person, prior to activity to build the energy is built on a false expectation that it improves performance.

Asking a dog to perform when they are over aroused is not performance; it is kill zone reactivity and survival, which is confused with drive. It is so far from where I would EVER want a dog or person to be, when expecting the best out of them.

We have a TV programs, quiz shows, and over holidays they often replace the usual contestants with celebs, raising money for charities. We see how limited their education is, goodness me, and how overcome they are by stress that they cannot even compute simple mathematical subtraction: “47 – 12”. This is the result of pressure – because when at home watching they find it easy. But these are people familiar with TV studios, cameras etc., but quite fearful of looking stupid and letting down the team. Every effort is made to increase this.

Why should we expect different from our dogs?

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End on a Good Note

We don’t work in the “must finish on a good note” model any more, as every note is good. It dates back to the 60s when a dog must be scolded for being in the wrong, so that they can know when they are right. Much of the “training” then was based on a model of punish first. Instead, we should engineer all of our dogs’ learning so that it is a pleasurable experience and do everything we can to set them up for success.

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Extinction

The dog who begs at the table – if for the first 20 opportunities you do not fold and deliver the corner of your toast, then the behaviour will fade and only an occasional testing event may happen again. But if you fold on the twentieth occasion you have now set up success based repetition.

Consider that the dog was wired to try something 20 times before giving up, and the 20th occasion was successful. Now we have built an expectation that something will be successful on the 20th occurrence and that batches of 20s need to be performed before a result. The dog could logically try 20 x 20 events and expect success on the 400th occurrence. What a pain that would be.

I do not think dogs consider anything in batches of 20, but that one occasion will certainly serve to push an increasing number of repetitions before another single successful event occurs. Far better to remove the dog from the opportunity of learning to beg if the table users have such poor self-control.

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Free-Shaping

Free-shaping, or shaping with no guidance, can be an extremely stressful process. All your efforts at trying to find what gets treats can be met with no response, no information and very soon you will begin to flounder. We see dogs “click-fishing”, dancing around on the spot trying find what it is that gets a click. It often looks a very agitated, frenetic process.

The stress of this will be felt viscerally, that sinking feeling in the stomach. For the sensitive learners, having absolutely no idea what to do, it is a killer.

Can you imagine turning up to class, any class, and being given absolutely no guidance as to what to do?

Go on, try 101 things with that chair …..  I’m waiting  …..  something “new” ?”

This does not have a useful future to the learner. They can learn to avoid repeating a successful behaviour, and become stuck in a chain of trying everything they have previously be reinforced for and adding one more.

Shaping towards a goal can be complex and often involve extinction if the intial behaviour are not an integral part of the goal behaviour.

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Recipes

The subject of training is far more complex that it appears on the surface. The term training, in common usage, undersells a complex system and rarely shares a common understanding. Many choices are bombarded at us from guaranteed recipes to magical solutions.

We live with our dogs in very individually different lifestyles and personal expectations. We have an responsibility to meet the needs of the society we live in. We may share passions for different dog sports, social events with dogs and leisure activities. We are learning to integrate research from neuroscience, the extensive technology available from education, instructional design, applied behaviour analysis and sport development.

The current trend is to collect training recipes that individually may suggest promising outcomes but are not tailored to the ingredients in your pantry. The training industry is very similar to cooking which can cover the knowledge to prepare a simple lunch, to a complex banquet. You can learn the skills sufficient for every day needs or graduate to a professional level that incorporated complexities at many levels. Where dog training fails is in teaching a structured pathway for either the trainer or the dog. You can learn your cooking skills alongside your grandmother or in a culinary school. Either way there are foundation skills, knowledge and understanding that must be acquired before progress.

When we bring together our knowledge, understanding and skills we begin to make significant learning progress. Exploring old landscapes with new eyes changes what we see, knowledge changes how we process what we see, and doing it gives us experience from which we can make educated choices.

It may seem easier to sit back and follow a step-by-step recipe that has been tried and tested many times and proven successful. The follow-process may suit a beginner, or someone needing a quick tray of muffins but it rarely brings understanding until we build our own recipes.

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Socialisation

It is our job to teach the dogs the difference between strangers (just boring passers by), acquaintances (may visit and chat) and family (can greet you and touch your body). Dogs who regard the whole world as “family” are just a nuisance, and have yet to learn that we don’t greet strangers — just as you would teach that to children. It does not mean they are “unfriendly”, but friendly at the right and appropriate times.

It is more about developing the skills to evaluate each individual dogs’ needs, and readiness for the next level. Too much damage is done by overwhelming a dog, or person, with more expectation than they can handle.

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Actions and Movements

Backing Under Pressure

At one time, to teach a dog to walk backwards the trend was certainly threat and heavy pressure. “Oh but it worked”. It worked at a high price to the dog.A dog who moves backwards away from threat will often sink low at the front and push their front feet and shoulders first. Their muscles are tight and tense. An aversive look. Nature designed a dog to avoid a cup of hot coffee on their head by stepping out of the way, not going backwards until they exited the danger zone.

Target training, where the dog backs onto a mat, gave me the alternative solution and the result is a dog that runs backwards with a level topline, relaxed, not scrunched and compressed front end. My ethical filter supported my belief that the way a behaviour is carried out is more important than the behaviour itself. When asked to share my training recipes for that cool new behaviour: “Hey Kay, how do you teach that?” The answer is usually “carefully”, perhaps it should be “ethically”.

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Beg/Sit Pretty

This behaviour does not occur beyond about 6-7 weeks in dogs. Puppies will sit-up when feeding from a standing bitch, but I have never seen the behaviour occur naturally in an adult dog. Larger and deep chested breeds can be compromised with the disproportionate weight to muscle capacity. This may be beneficial for some individuals but cause harm to others.

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Crawl

I do not teach my dogs to crawl. I understand that some dogs exhibit this quite naturally but as a movement for entertainment I am uncomfortable seeing a dog crawling. In addition to which young, male adult dogs often exhibit this behaviour for quite undesirable reasons and “get themselves into trouble”.

For me it is not, as an aspect of the species carrying out a behaviour that is somewhat demeaning: “me master, you dog, crawl to me”.

Lots of repetition of a behaviour may or may not reduce the benefits. A behaviour that may be easy for a young dog may not be easy as the dog matures, and the physiology may change.

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Eye Contact

I think if somebody tried to train me to make eye contact with them, when I’m teaching them or having a conversation, I would feel a little coerced.  I want my eyes free to look at what’s relevant rather than eye to eyeball. If you go back 20 or 30 years, “watch me” was one of the standard cues followed by a check on a collar. “Pay attention to me because I’m the only thing that should be interesting” That’s arrogance. To me the dog should be free to look at what’s relevant to them. Because if we don’t let them choose what’s relevant to them, how would we know what’s relevant to them?

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Loose-Lead Walking

The restriction of the lead, often in conjunction with punishment based head-halters and harnesses, prevents the dog from either of their natural movements, walk or trot and they are forced to pace. This is the same as if you were using your left arm going forward with your left leg and right with right leg etc. After 20 paces, your back will begin to tighten up and probably your fists clench in frustration. Now imagine a group of people walking towards you very fast, with that peculiar pacing action – be suspicious huh? If you have a dog unable to pace the outcome is yo-yo walking. Dog goes to end of lead, stops, waits for you, or is pulled back to your side, over the next 10 steps the dog is back at the end of the lead again.

What do they learn? On-lead, next to you – uncomfortable.

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Heads-Up Heelwork

There is a fashion to teach the heads-up heelwork with this nose contact to hand for extensive duration. Apart from it presenting an uncomfortable, nose squishing learning process it ONLY positions the head of the dog.

The trainer rarely sees that it does not allow for natural free movement and balance.

I regularly see:

  • compromised action (when the hand is too high and the dog’s front legs are flailing) or
  • compressed vertebrae around the neck and upper back (when the hand is too low),
  • and the greater extreme where there is limited flexibility in the spine, a dog walking in a half sitting position.
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Leave It

There is a tendency to want to reward our dogs for simply “behaving nicely”. I’m sorry, but this is a path to nowhere. We cannot reinforce an absence of an undesired behaviour … because we are reinforcing something, or nothing.

These protocols all rely on an extinction process. The pup or dog will see an opportunity to take a piece of food, in the hand, at the table or on the floor and “make the error” of trying to get it. When doing so the opportunity is removed in a variety of ways, some more obnoxious than others. The outcome is a dog who is now confused on the presentation of the stimuli: food in the hand, and hands in general.

Why is it necessary to let the dog make the error to be able to remove it? Let’s focus ourselves on teaching the dog what we want them to do, and find lots and lots of different ways to reward them for doing that.

trust hands
learning to always trust hands
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Nose Target

Nose target is permanently off my “would teach” list

Nose targeting where the dog presses, or bumps, their nose to the palm of the open hand or fingers is a commonly taught, regularly employed activity. It is used to bring the dog close to hand contact, teach nose-first behaviours and husbandry. Its history goes back to the earliest days of clicker training as an example of targeting, with an easy-to-teach attraction.

Dogs cannot close their nostrils and often take considerable effort to protect this delicate and important organ from damage. When a dog is burying a bone, the soil is pushed with the top or bridge of the nose. Not directly against the nostrils. When I see one of the dogs playfully poke another dog with their nose, it is the lips covering the teeth that engage in the effort, not the nostrils.

We cannot excuse the process with “he doesn’t seem to mind” where the potential treat on offer and the training history outweigh any discomfort. Dogs, men and small children can all be manipulated to engage in stupidity for a short-term rewards without awareness of the long-term consequences.

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Sit to Greet

Often jumping up is viewed as “attention seeking” or “lack of impulse control”, which expert advice tells us needs suppression as opposed to attention. Our dogs are not there to be “seen but not heard”, so why are we suppressing a desire for interaction? A common protocol for reinforcement trainers: “cue sit, good sit, feed sit”, or punishment trainers: “ignore the dog for demanding attention as any attention may be viewed as reinforcing”. Can you imagine turning up at a much-anticipated event and everyone turns their back on you? Being ignored will either deeply upset you, or at the very least may drive a more demanding need to be noticed.

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