Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA
In agility competition if the human makes one small false step it can through the dog completely off course. It’s why I was miserable at agility. I kept tripping and falling. It’s a great reminder, though, that our behavior means everything when teaching our dogs.
The first part of this is pretty simple. If we are doing something that is obviously triggering an unwanted behavior, we need to stop it. Don’t mess with your dog’s food if it makes him bite you. Don’t squeal and flail your hands if it makes him jump on you (unless you like that). Don’t yell at him for barking if it makes him bark more. Okay, we all pretty much understand that part. I hope.
Most of the time what trips us up is more subtle. We flinch flinch toward the treat bag, distracting our dog from the task at hand. Worse yet, we are constantly digging in the treat bag or preemptively loading treats into our hand. This is why I teach my clients to keep their hands still. Stay out of the bag.
Other times we get distracted. Our attention wanders and we miss an opportunity to reinforce good behavior. (Or we step into them on a agility run and everything goes amok).
Occasionally we reinforce the wrong behavior altogether. I was having a chat with someone once and my dog barked at me. Absentmindedly I gave her a piece of food to quiet her down. She ate it. Then she barked again. Without thinking my hand went into the treat bag and I gave her a bit of food. This went on for 4 or 5 more rounds before I caught myself. I didn’t mean to teach her to bark at me. Still, that’s exactly what I was doing. Barking yielded food. It wasn’t her fault. For all I know she thought I was teaching her a trick. That’s how training works, after all. Oh, and I forgot to mention this all happened on live television. Ugh.
It happens to the best dog trainers:
- We stop and talk to them when they whine.
- We let them in when they paw at the door.
- We follow faster when they pull on leash.
- We pet when they jump on us.
Dog training is actually pretty easy if we put our minds to it. We control a lot of the process: 1) how we set things up and 2) how we reinforce the behavior we are teaching. Our dog is in charge of his actual behavior choice, but that behavior is strongly influence by the set up and the reinforcement. I hope that is empowering information for us humans. We are in control of 2/3 of the equation, if not more.
Yes, there’s lots of room for us to make mistakes. But, we have the ability (and responsibility) to correct those mistakes. Good dog training is like a conversation. Our actions prompt and influence our dog’s actions. Our dog’s actions also prompt and influence us. It’s a give and take. Our job is to set the tone and keep the conversation going.
Michael Baugh teaches training and dog behavior in Houston TX