Talking Dog: With dogs, educating is better than training

November 27, 2007 

As a child, I was constantly asking, "Why?"

When told not to do something, "Why?" When asked to perform a task, "Why?"

I remember my mother's frustration, and me explaining that my intention wasn't to be argumentative, I just wanted to understand the reasoning behind the requests and directions.

In order to comply, I really needed to know why.

Perhaps it's those memories that cause me to empathize with the "micro-managed dog." This is the dog that is constantly directed: nagging tugs at the leash to remind him to be good and not to lunge or pull, badgering to sit and be still, being scolded for jumping up, etc. It's a wonder these dogs can even function without the relentless direction of the owner.

I believe in and prefer to work with a dog's natural intelligence. Highly trained dogs may execute commands well, but a dog that has been raised to think is, in my opinion, much more reliable. I refer to this process as educating, rather than training. As a dog "trainer," I have found that word cues, directions and corrections are not nearly as effective as observing, remaining quiet and often allowing the dog to answer the "why" question itself, by carefully creating situations in which certain behaviors that I prefer are rewarded when the dog chooses to do them spontaneously.

This process works in two ways: Reward behavior that works, discourage behavior that doesn't. The dog lunging and pulling on its leash wants to get somewhere -- fast. This behavior is discouraged by silently stopping anytime pulling occurs. This absence of reward discourages the pulling behavior. When the dog chooses to cease the pulling, even for a few seconds, the walk is resumed. Naturally, the excited dog will go right back to lunging, so the stop-and-walk method of education must be repeated often. As the dog is learning what behavior works for it and what doesn't, it will test you frequently to be sure, meaning the lunging will occur more often before fading completely. This is referred to as the extinction burst and is a good sign.

A jumping dog is vying for attention. Ignoring and abruptly turning away from the dog is a consequence, or absence of reward. A dog attempting to bolt through the open slider door in its eagerness to have access to the house finds the door abruptly closes, which is the consequence of its action. A leashed dog that barks and scratches at the front door, eager to begin a walk, discovers that the door doesn't open until or unless the dog steps back and sits. All of these examples could be addressed by training/cuing the dog to sit, but this often yields inconsistent results.

Why? Various reasons include that cuing the dog to sit is a form of attention, and inconsistency in the process (sometimes the dog gets a reward without complying to the sit cue). So the trained dog continues to jump and bolt and scratch until cued to do something else.

The educated dog learns to manage its behavior without being cued, by answering, "Why?" for itself. A jumping dog is given attention and affection only when it is sitting or standing; the slider door doesn't open unless the dog positions itself in a sit on its own; and the scratching dog watches the door open when it chooses to stand back, sit and wait.

The education process is often more time-consuming, but yields more consistent, reliable and long-term results. It requires the owner to withhold attention and ignore the jumping dog, and go out of the way to lavish affection on the dog when it's not jumping. That may mean standing at the slider door for five minutes waiting to reward a spontaneous sit before opening it. It may include strolling up to the front door and waiting patiently for the sit to occur naturally before opening it and beginning the walk.

It seems the consensus among many with dogs in training is that the process should happen very quickly. If the dog doesn't get the concept right away, move on to a correction. But the education process allows the dog to determine the pros and cons of each behavior and then choose to repeat the behavior that works in its best interest. A dog that wants attention, is eager to be let into the house or gain access to the outside will defer to the desired behavior without being prompted, because it has learned what results in a positive payoff. There is no doubt that this process works well; the question is whether the dog owner is smart, patient and consistent enough to allow the dog time to learn.

Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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