Saying that dog training is complex is like saying life is unpredictable. It’s a massive understatement that is of little use to anyone in the midst of teaching a dog a “sit” from a “down.” Training involves communicating with a different species that speaks a different language. Training involves teaching dogs how to behave – not always according to rules that make sense in our dogs’ minds, but according to rules that make sense in our minds. Often, despite research and consultation with others, training hits obstacles – and this is often when clients call my colleagues and I for help.
Although it can be incredibly frustrating when training techniques fail to change behavior, it doesn’t mean the training is a failure. Tweaks in timing, mechanics, and procedure are sometimes all that’s needed for a successful outcome.
Over the next several blog posts, I will focus on ways to make your training more effective and how to troubleshoot the difficult spots. This week’s post will focus on a topic that is critical to any type of behavior modification program: Consistency.
Pat Miller, a noted positive dog trainer, summarized the importance of consistency in the Whole Dog Journal, writing, “…consistent responses to a dog’s behaviors, both desirable and undesirable, are predictable for the dog, which helps him make sense of his world and feel safe. A dog whose world is orderly and safe is usually calmer, more relaxed, predictable, and better-behaved than one whose world is chaotic and intimidating. Dogs and owners who perceive each other as safe, predictable, and well-behaved, tend to enjoy a better mutual relationship.”
When teaching a dog any new behavior, be it a simple obedience command or reverting a deeply entrenched phobia, repetition and consistent communication are key.
Think about what you do to learn a new behavior, change a bad habit or train for an athletic event. In order to do any of these successfully, you need repetition. By practicing maneuvers for a specific sport, the body builds muscle memory. When learning a new behavior, your mind and body practice in order to do it well and to do it well in real-life situations. When changing a bad habit, repetition breaks the behavior cycle.
Now think about what happens when you don’t use repetition. That’s when you endure a painful run in which you feel like you have weights in your shoes. That’s when you forget knowledge you used to know by memory. That’s when your bad habits creep back to the surface. In short, that’s when you stop learning and maintaining behavior.
The same goes for dogs. In fact, it is impractical to expect dogs to learn new behaviors and cease old ones with only a few spare moments reserved for teaching and practice. When teaching a new behavior or working on mitigating an emotion like fear, you need to put in the time, not just in random bursts, but each day. Once you’ve installed a behavior or quelled an emotion, remember to reinforce it to maintain the hard work.
Because dogs don’t speak our language, and because we don’t speak theirs, we need to be consistent and specific about what we communicate during training.
When choosing a verbal cue for a behavior, like “watch,” make sure you and everyone involved use the same cue. If you sometimes say “watch” and other times say “look at me,” and still other times say your dog’s name, your dog will have a difficult time learning the meaning of the verbal cue. You will also encounter difficulty teaching your dog to pay attention to you on command; when you have an inconsistent command, you will get an inconsistent behavior. The same rules apply for using hand gestures as behavior cues.
Similarly, if you are using time outs to reduce unwanted behavior, make sure that every instance of the unwanted behavior results in a time out. If your dog avoids a time out some of the time, but gets a time out at other times, your dog will be confused and the unwanted behavior will continue. If your dog realizes that each time he jumps on a visitor he gets placed in a room alone for 2 minutes, he will form the connection that jumping equals alone time. When he realizes this 1:1 ratio, he will quit jumping on strangers. With a 5:1 ratio, or even a 2:1 ratio, your dog will have trouble determining what you want him to do.
Training Never Ends
In another issue of Whole Dog Journal, dog trainer April Frost writes, “Many people are in the habit of “tuning out” their dog when they are not in obedience class or engaged in some other dog-centered activity. But the rules and requirements of behavior have to exist in all aspects of a dog’s environment. If you don’t want your dog to pull on his leash, then it’s never an acceptable behavior whether you are at an obedience class or walking down the street.”
The fact is, training never ends. Don’t let this scare you. Let it encourage you to take advantage of each learning moment that comes you and your dog’s way. One of the best ways to love your dog is to provide her with a safe, steady, predictable environment. In short, when it comes to dogs, consistency equals love.
– By Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town in San Francisco, which provides customized dog training and private training walks in the Bay Area.