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Train For Tomorrow, Not For Today

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Featured Article Bay Woof Magazine January 2018:

The new year. A time to start fresh. Let old behaviors be forgot and never brought to mind. No matter what your training goals are as you begin again, focusing on adhering to some core principles of dog training should help you start this year’s dog walks on the right foot.

Bringing the right energy to your training is of supreme importance, because the energy you bring will either show the dog that training is fun or something to be avoided. I liken this to opening a pickle jar. There are tricks that can be used to open a tight lid, such as running warm water over the lid to expand the metal and loosen up the seal. This may take a while, because you have to allow the tap to warm up and then run water over the lid long enough to loosen the seal, but there’s a major advantage to this method. The seal is not degraded, and when you go to close the jar, it will seal tightly again. In dog training, that warm water is the fun, positive energy you bring to the session that will loosen your dog up, further a tight bond between you two, and build a positive association with training for your pup.

Contrast that method with another little jar-opening trick, the one where you can take a hard object, like a spoon, and bang it against a lid to dent it, which very quickly loosens the seal. The catch is that you’ve deteriorated that seal for the future. Applied to dog training, forceful methods may get you want you want today, but what about tomorrow? That’s one of my biggest maxims: Dog training is never about today; it’s about tomorrow. If you pry a ball from your dog’s mouth, you’ll have the ball today, and tomorrow it’s another fight. Conversely, you could aim to teach drop, and while you might not win today, if your dog learns it in the future, you’re going to be a lot happier.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As a dog professional, I tend to spend my time in two realms. One is training dogs to prevent problem behaviors from ever occurring, typically through puppy training. The other is rehabilitating problem behaviors that have already formed. While proper initial puppy training is tough work, it’s nothing compared to fixing problem behaviors that have taken root. Many times owners are not able to solve deeply set problems without lots of help from a professional. And some problem behaviors simply don’t go away completely. Anywhere I can, I try for prevention, not intervention.

We employ this technique for behaviors like not jumping on people by teaching puppies that sitting is rewarding and ask them to do that instead. What about other common problems, like pulling on the leash or nuisance barking? One of the biggest principles in dog training is a dog can’t do what’s right if he doesn’t know what that looks like. In other words, you can tell them not to bark till you're blue in the face today, but what about teaching them how to be rewarded for being quiet in the first place for the future? You can find instructional videos on YouTube to help teach your dog to bark on command. From there, you can have him go from barking to quiet, back and forth, until he can do both on cue, and you’ve installed a quiet command that’s positive-reinforcement forward.

Psychologist Edward Thorndike’s law of effect states that a pleasing aftereffect strengthens the action that produced it. This is what I call the Golden Rule of dog training. Whenever I deal with unraveling a problem behavior, I always start by locating where the reward is for the dog in a behavior-and-consequence equation. For instance, with nuisance barking, if a dog barks at passerby in the window, what happens? Well, 99.9 percent of the time, the passerby goes away. While we’re clearly able to discern that this did not occur because of any action on the dog’s part — the people that live outside our window are simply going other places — but it’s not so clear-cut to a dog. In fact, a dog may conclude that this immense correlation — barking at people who then disappear — must prove causation, and the dog’s goal of preventing strangers from intruding was realized by their barking to warn them not to come near. Their action was rewarded and therefore more likely to be repeated.

Why do dogs pull on leash? Because of how many times it’s gotten them where they’re trying to go. Why do they jump? Also because of how many times it has allowed them to achieve the attention they’re seeking. Understanding this principle can unlock a great deal of knowledge in dog training for many. May this year bring new happiness, new goals, new achievements, and a lot of new inspirations for your life. Keep your focus on the long-term objectives, and you’ll for sure get off on the right foot.

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