11 Apr The Genius Of New Dog Trainers
I have talked a lot on this blog about how well-adapted dogs are to be our friends and companions. Domestication has brought them to a point at which they are incredibly well-versed in reading our body language, understanding our emotions, helping with our work or participating in our hobbies.
What I did not yet write about is the other side of the equation – how beautifully natural it can come to new owners to train their dog. As much as dogs are adjusted to be our partners, we have an innate ability to be theirs. If new owners get started out on the right track they quickly become trainers that are a joy to watch.
The Little Crazy Girl
A few days ago I got called by a family that owns a 1 year old toy breed mix, GG. GG did not have any behavioral issues but also did not exactly excel in listening to her owners. She would jump up 3 feet straight in the air and literally bounce off the furniture and walls when excited. GG was obviously thrilled about training, so thrilled that her brain went in over-drive and she tried to do a million things at once.
She would sit when asked to sit, for about 0.75 seconds, and then go back to bouncing and spinning and being wildly enthusiastic about life itself.
A Different Space-Time
Little GG obviously lives in a different space time than her humans. In the time that it took them to get a treat from their pocket to deliver it to her for sitting she had long moved on to running laps and celebrating her youthful energy. It seemed impossible to slow her down enough to communicate with her in our space-time!
We often see this in puppies and sometimes in adult dogs (mostly, but not always, of small breeds). The dog is so full of joy for training (which is fantastic) that it is hard to actually train. He offers so many behaviors that great timing is crucial in getting treats delivered for the correct ones. Unfortunately timing is one of the dog training skills that in my experience take the longest to fine-tune.
The pure motor skill of timely treat delivery is not learned during an hour or two. Sure, an experienced clicker trainer could just click the very moment that GG sat, then swiftly dart in with his hand and reward her. This kind of great timing takes time to develop and is unreasonable to expect from someone just starting out (a reason why I do not think clicker training is the best idea for beginner trainers of energetic dogs – event though I am an avid clicker trainer myself).
Speeding the owner up to GG’s space-time was not going to be possible. So we had to show her people how to slow her down.
A Handful of Treats
One of the simplest, yet most effective dog training tricks is rapid treat delivery. By rapid, I do not mean give a treat, stick your hand into the pocket to get another treat and give it to the dog, stick your hand back into the pocket…that is too slow.
Instead, take a handful of treats. Put them into your dominant hand. Take a bowl and try to put the treats into this bowl as quickly as you can, one by one. Using a rolling motion of your thumb, move the treat from the palm of your hand over your middle and index finger and into the bowl (this way you have the most control over where it goes – we need this precision as we want to deliver the treat right into our dog’s mouth, not somewhere in the vicinity of it).
Try this a couple times. By the second or third round you should have a good feeling for how to very quickly move the treat out of your hand. Now it’s time to get the dog!
The 30 Treat Sit
I asked GG to sit and started to bring my hand out to her for a treat. She immediately popped up. I did not ask her to sit again, but simply held the treats in my hand and did not release them until she eventually decided to sit back down. As soon as this happened the rapid treats started. I gave her treat after treat after treat. Her little face showed a mixture of surprise and delight. She loved her treats and never before had they been so quick and easy to earn!
After maybe 10 treats I stopped the rapid treats for just two or three seconds. GG stayed sitting. Then rapid treats resumed. At this point the owners cried out with amazement – never before had GG sat for three whole seconds!
This time I gave her five rapid treats, followed by a pause. GG stayed sitting. The treats resumed, and in the next pause I drew back my arm a little and stood up a bit (GG is a very small dog, and standing up can entice them to immediately start jumping to decrease the distance between them and you). GG stayed sitting. I bent right back down and gave her a lot of treats and praise.
Then I asked the owners to give it a go.
From Novice to Master Dog Trainer, in 5 Minutes
I had not even extensively talked about what I was doing as I was training GG apart from commenting the obvious “I don’t give her the treat until her butt hits the ground”, “This was fantastic, she can have a lot of rewards for that so she knows how much I like her sitting” etc. Now it was time to see what GG’s people had taken away from it.
Her mom took a handful of treats and asked GG to sit. GG sat and popped right back up. Her mom held the hand with the treats in front of her and as GG sat back down, delivered one after the other to her.
GG’s mom told me “She has not done it with me yet so the two of us also had to figure it out” (in trainer speech – the dog did not have a reinforcement history for duration sitting with her owner yet).
What an insight from a total novice trainer (that many more experienced ones can be lacking at times)!
GG got rewarded generously for sitting, then her owner drew back her arm and stood up a little. GG stayed sitting, and her mom bent right back down and gave her several treats while praising her.
Then she ran out of treats. She took a step towards the table on which the treat bag was sitting, grabbed another handful and turned around to GG – who was still sitting! This is the dog that 5 minutes ago could not sit for more than a half second. Her owner celebrated her and rewarded her beautifully.
Appreciating the dog’s effort and recognizing unusually great offered behaviors – another dog training skill that is immensely valuable and seen not often enough in much more experienced dog trainers.
This beginner trainer showed a keen observation skill paired with generosity in her rewards – which took her from novice to master within one short training session.
Later during our session I heard her say “Ooops, that was my fault”.
Being able to own training mistakes and not blaming the dog for it – probably the most critical skill of all.
Shaping Humans to Shape Dogs
Instead of just demonstrating how to train, I could have of course started the training by explaining to GG’s humans the basics of operant conditioning. Antecedent, behavior, consequence. Criteria. Timing. Rate of reinforcement. Blablabla (that’s what it would have probably sounded like). I chose not to. Unless the owner has an interest in knowing the science behind training, there is no need to bore anyone with it (and yes, even though it is interesting for us as trainers, we need to accept that this is boring for the majority of people).
Just like I can drive my car without knowing how it works, owners can train their dog without knowing why they need to train a certain way. Observation, trial and error and the ability to own mistakes is all that it takes.
Letting Training Train the Trainer
Training is a mechanical skill. Just like the dog knows nothing about the theory of shaping and can still be beautifully shaped, the humans don’t need to know about the theoretical background to be shaped to shape a dog.
The dog’s own reactions can shape the owner’s training. Just like the dog repeats what worked and changes what did not work, his owner will repeat the training approaches that were rewarding ( = made the dog do what the owner wanted) and try something different for what did not work ( = what did not result in the dog showing the desired behavior).
For this to work of course it is important that the owner recognizes that the dog has no fault in doing things wrong – it is important to take the dog not performing well as negative feedback for the training, not as a bad characteristic of the dog.
The Genius of New Trainers
I always enjoy watching new owners truly “train” their dog for the first time (not by saying “SitSitSit” over and over until the dog sits – but by actually interacting with the dog in a conversation. “If you sit, I have plenty of rewards. If you pop up, they will stop. If you sit again, they resume. Good job! Now let’s make it a tiny bit more difficult”).
A part of us seems to intuitively know how to train and talk to our dogs. The less we interfere with those conversations of new trainers and their dogs and only offer structured but limited guidance, the faster they can find the shared language they will use in training and understand what works and what does not.
We need to help them develop keen observation skills and humility to acknowledge that their dogs’ misbehavior is probably due to a gap in their conversation. Other than that, I like to stand back and watch the dog shape the owner shaping the dog. It is a beautiful process to assist with and it creates owners that understand how to train – not how to follow a certain protocol to teach a specific skill – but to truly train.
If you come across a beginner trainer, encourage them and tell them they are doing great, because they are – and they learn through positive reinforcement just as well as the dogs.
Happy Training – whether new or seasoned!