Pets In Practice

PetTrainers ABTC APBC

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Myths About Dog Behaviour and Training

Dispelling a few of the common myths regarding dog behaviour and dog training.

MYTH: My dog is just stubborn!

FACT: This response is sometimes given when an owner can’t teach their dog to do something. Humans learn at different rates. Dogs learn at different rates too. Some dogs find certain tasks easier to learn than others. Some trainers find the teaching of certain tasks easier than others. If a dog isn’t learning a task as quickly as expected, rather than label the dog as stubborn, please check to make sure the following statements don’t apply.

  • Is your dog just having an off day?
    Maybe he/she is poorly or tired.

  • Is your dog comfortable in the training environment?
    A lot of stressed dogs will struggle to learn.

  • Has the training session been going on for too long?
    We can’t concentrate well for long periods and neither can our dogs so make sure training sessions are always kept short and sweet.

  • Are there too many distractions?
    Distracted dogs, like distracted humans, will struggle to concentrate on the task being taught.

  • Is what you are asking your dog to do, being shown/asked in a clear enough manner?
    If we are under pressure to teach something our communication can sometimes become a bit vague. Videoing yourself, during training sessions, is a really good way of watching the session from the dog’s point of view. It is also a perfect way to spot any mistakes we make and therefore can assist in improving the way we train.

  • Can your dog physically do what he/she has been asked to do?
    For example can the big Newfoundland actually comfortably fit through an agility tunnel, can the dog with the sore hip comfortably sit for too long?

  • Is the task you are teaching them something they feel confident enough to try?
    A dog who is worried about a certain action, position or object is unlikely to want to try it out.

  • Is your dog too hungry, thirsty, hot or cold?
    Struggling to focus when your basic needs have not been met, is tremendously difficult.

  • Does your dog want to do what you are asking him/her to do?
    For example is the ‘reward’ you are using desirable enough for your dog to put in the effort you are asking. If we were asked to paint our friend’s house without a return of the favour, would we be happy doing it for £5? Some would, some wouldn’t, dogs are no different.

  • Are we expecting too much?
    Unrealistic expectations can result in failure. Therefore our aim, when training our dogs, should be that the sessions are fun for both us and our dog and that a little learning has taken place. If our dog is struggling to pick up a task we are teaching him/her, we just need to make the task a little easier and maybe add a bit more ‘fun’ into the session too.

In my experience stubborn dogs don’t exist, instead dogs having off days, exist; dogs struggling to learn when they are poorly or tired, exist; dogs unable to cope with long training sessions, exist; dogs distracted by either exciting or fear inducing stimuli, exist; dogs confused by our unclear communication / instruction, exist; dogs that are physically or mentally unable to perform the task, exist; dogs bored of our training, exist, and owners/trainers that haven’t got the payment (AKA positive reinforcement / reward) right, exist.

Thus rather than label a dog as just ‘stubborn’ we should instead by finding out why he/she is finding learning difficult.

MYTH: Critics suggest that the gentle approach of “positive reinforcement” training is only successful when used in training small/willing/sensitive/non-aggressive dogs and doesn’t work on large/less willing/insensitive/aggressive dogs.

FACT: Positive reinforcement has been used to successfully train animals as large as the killer whale, as dangerous as the tiger and as tiny as the mouse, which completely contradicts what the critics say. If a killer whale, tiger and mouse can be trained using positive reinforcement why shouldn’t every breed and type of dog be able to be trained in the same way?

All animals will seek to do things that are rewarding to them. Therefore those trainers who have never been able to get positive reinforcement to work are obviously not skilled enough to recognise/ find out what the motivator of the particular animal hey are training is. How many of us would clean our neighbour’s car in exchange for a bottle of red wine? I would but others who don’t drink or don’t like red wine might not be so inclined to. Would those of you who wouldn’t clean it in exchange for red wine do it for cash instead? If so how much? £5, £25, £50? Even with humans getting the type of motivator and quantity of motivator right is often quite hard, therefore the same difficulty is posed with dogs.

From a young age we are told never to response to aggression with aggression, so why is this rule flouted when it comes to dealing with aggressive dogs? Why should we want to match a dog at its level of aggression when research shows that using aversive training methods on fearful or frustrated dogs is more likely to lead to more, or even the onset of, aggressive behaviours, whereas understanding and addressing the dog’s emotional state reduces, or indeed prevents, the onset of aggressive behaviours.  Surely if we are always able to reward the right behaviour the dog will never need to attempt wrong behaviours. So I for one think the gentle approach of positive reinforcement although gentle in its application is both extremely powerful and successful in its training capabilities.

MYTH: My dog is dominant because he pulls on the lead, doesn’t always come when I call him, jumps up at me, licks me, always wants to get up on the sofa / bed, doesn’t like me handling his paws or brushing the knots out of his fur.

FACT: Within the last eight years the theory of dominance has been used to explain just about every inappropriate dog behaviour. Using dominance to explain why a problem exists between a dog and owner is totally incorrect, since the theory of dominance describes a social relationship between two or more individuals from the SAME species. Dominance is also not a character trait. Therefore in reality if your dog jumps up at you, it’s probably because he has not been taught to greet you without jumping up. If your dog pulls on the lead, he probably hasn’t been taught that he should walk closely beside you or is just very very keen to get park. If your dog’s recall isn’t always reliable, he probably hasn’t been taught / or had enough practice at being called away from exciting things, or he has decided the reward you are offering is way lower than the reward of staying where he is. If your dog licks you it is because he is either establishing or maintaining a bond with you. Dogs, like humans, will want to find the most comfortable resting / sleeping places. Why lay on a hard cold floor, even if it is covered by an inch, or less, of dog bed when you could be sleeping on a raised warm comfortable sofa / bed instead. This isn’t your dog being dominant; this is your dog being clever by seeking out the warmest and most comfortable areas to rest. If your dog doesn’t like being groomed or having his paws handled he most likely finds the brush or your handling of him uncomfortable (or even painful, getting knots out of our hair can be sore, so why should this be any different for our dogs) / scary (being restrained and unable to escape is in itself a very frightening situation for dogs) or both. So rather than using ‘dominance’ as an excuse for a lack of adequate or appropriate training, decide how you would like your dog to behave and find a qualified behaviourist www.apbc.org.uk or trainer www.apdt.co.uk in order to help you achieve this instead.

MYTH: Using food in training is bribery.

FACT: There is no doubt food can be used to bribe a dog in the same way money can be used to bribe a person. But anyone who considers the use of food in training as bribery has failed to understand the rules of learning theory. Whilst teaching a dog or human something new there needs to be a pay-out (AKA reward) for getting it right. Not many people will continue to cook meals for those who never say thank you. Fewer people would go to work if they no longer got paid. So a dog shouldn’t be expected to work without reward. After all working in order to obtain reward is a basic animal instinct. Dogs, like humans, love food which is why food is often used during training. Some dogs prefer toys and games, so for these dogs toys and games could be used instead of food.
 
So what is the difference between reward/reinforcement and bribery?  Reward is something that is presented to a dog or human to indicate they have just got something right. Whereas bribery is used to get a dog or human to do something they already know how to do.
……….and is all bribery wrong? The word bribery has some very negative connotations, but in some instances could bribery be seen as beneficial? If we find ourselves in a situation, with a child, adult or dog where a bit of bribery can influence the child’s, adult’s or dog’s behaviour for the better wouldn’t it then be ok to use? Isn’t bribery used by us humans in every day family life in the form of the promise of reward once good behaviour has been carried out? My bribery for going food shopping with my husband is the coffee and cake I enjoy in the supermarket café at the start of the shop. This particular reward is provided before the good behaviour (pushing the trolley without moaning) has been carried out but still has a good effect. If we can encourage the onset of improved behaviour through the occasional use of bribery, maybe a little bit of bribery here and there, isn’t all that bad after all.

MYTH: My dog should want to work for me because I am their master after all!

FACT: Like humans, dogs will often work hard to obtain reward and avoid punishment. Just because dogs like to share our homes and enjoy our company it shouldn’t be taken for granted that they are only performing behaviours in order to make us happy. Dogs perform behaviours in order to make themselves happy too. This mutualistic reward means dogs don’t just do things to please us they do things to please us and please them at the same time. If I didn’t get anything rewarding out of doing something for another person I would soon cease doing this particular action. A dog is no different so next time you ask a dog to do something that benefits you, make sure there is something in it for the dog too.

dog seperator

MYTH: Dogs are descendants of wolves and therefore dog training should be based on how wolf packs interact with each other.

FACT: We are descended from apes but we do not behave or think like apes despite our common ancestry! Neither is our schooling based on the way apes learn. Similarly dogs do not think like wolves or indeed behave like them either. So why base a dog’s training or behavioural modification on how wolves interact with each other?

David Ryan in his article ‘why won’t dominance die’ writes:

“The support shown towards the dominance (pack) theory, despite the accumulating evidence that it is at best unhelpful and at worst highly detrimental, is concerning. It is easy to see why trainers and owners alike are fond of the concepts of “pack” and “dominance” in relation to pet dogs. A pack means we’re all part of the same gang. Except that none of the theories regarding pack / dominance actually bears up to scientific scrutiny.”

We are not all part of the same species gang since dogs know they are dogs and not humans, and we know we are human and not dogs!121-puppy-training

Pack structure and hierarchies do exist within members of the same species (human as well as canine), this is not something that is under dispute. But in the same way a wolf wouldn’t lead or even be part of a dog pack, a dog really has no intention of being the most dominant member of our pack!  

If we consider the pack theory itself it is already flawed from the outset, as it is the beta wolves which go forward in a hunt, the alpha wolf holds back. All the wolves eat at the same time if food is aplenty. Mother wolves feed their cubs before themselves. A pulling dog being more dominant than their owner, or getting owners to eat before their dogs to assert their dominance, is therefore clearly nonsense.

Training methods that advocate using wolf-like signals (alpha rolls, treating dogs as subordinates) are at best, misguided and at worse downright cruel!

With special thanks to David Ryan PG Dip (CABC) CCAB of Dog Secrets www.dog-secrets.co.uk for the use of his http://www.apbc.org.uk/articles/why-wont-dominance-die article.

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Kristina Glover BA (Hons) in Animal Behaviour Management, MSc (CABC)
Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors
Member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers  
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) Registered Animal Training Instructor
Telephone: 0118 9836470
Mobile: 07843 559441
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