How Dogs Learn: The Big Three

One of the most important things a new dog trainer can learn are the three main principles in dog training: timing, consistency and motivation.

Armed with these three principles, you can train a dog to do just about anything they’re physically and mentally capable of. If you are ever finding yourself having difficulty in training, or if it seems to you that your dog is confused, ask yourself if you have fully observed the BIG THREE.

1.) TIMING
A dog has a period of 1.3 to 1.5 seconds in which to associate a cause with its effect. This means that the saying “catch them in the act” is absolutely true. This applies to both corrections and rewards.

With rewards, it’s necessary to provide the dog with the reward at the exact moment the dog does what you like. If you’re teaching a “sit,” for example, you would want to provide the reward at precisely the moment the dog’s rear end hits the floor.

This is usually very difficult, however. By the time you have fetched the treat out of your pocket and moved towards the dog, the dog is now standing. And since we know that the dog associates the reward with what they were doing at the exact moment they received it, the dog will associate the reward with the standing, not the sitting you were trying to teach! This is why the advent of training with markers has become so popular; by teaching a dog that a word or a click is followed by a reward, it becomes much easier for the trainer to tell the dog exactly what it has done that has earned him a valuable reward. It is a highly effective way to communicate with a dog.

While a mistimed reward slows down learning, too many mistimed corrections can have even greater consequences. To correct a dog for breaking a “sit-stay” five seconds after he got up is meaningless. Again, the dog will believe he is being corrected for whatever he was doing at the moment he got up. If he gets up from his “sit-stay” and comes to you and you correct him, he will think he is being corrected for coming to you.

Also, too many mistimed corrections and your dog may begin to think that nothing they do is ever right, and they will shut down. This is called “learned helplessness” and it’s a terrible thing to see. Some dogs labeled submissive are actually not submissive by nature, but have acquired learned helplessness through bad training. It makes the dog insecure and it makes you, the trainer and owner, seem unpredictable and untrustworthy…and possibly even scary or threatening. You can see how this could be detrimental – Mistimed corrections can not only slow down learning, they can also harm the relationship between you and your dog.

2.) CONSISTENCY
When training a dog, you must be very clear. There is no grey area. A rule is a rule is a rule. This means that if you do not want your dog to jump up on you when it’s raining and they have muddy feet, then they cannot be rewarded (by your petting or paying attention to him) for doing it when it is sunny out.

If you’re in a great mood because you just got a promotion at work, you may happily greet your dog when they jump up on you when you get home. However, don’t be surprised when your dog doesn’t understand why you yell at them for jumping on you the next day when your car has just been side-swiped in the parking lot.

A dog that is allowed to jump on adults will not understand that they cannot jump on children or the elderly. Likewise, a puppy that is rewarded constantly for jumping up will turn into an adult that doesn’t understand why the rules have suddenly changed.

Again, this does more than make your dog confused on the issue of jumping, it can also make you seem unpredictable and untrustworthy. You must strive to be 100% consistent in your training! This will result in a dog that feels safe and secure knowing that there are well-defined rules and boundaries in their life with you and your family.

3.) MOTIVATION
A simple way to understand the concept of motivation is that a positive consequence makes a behavior continue and a negative consequence makes a behavior stop.

You communicate with your dog with praise and rewards when they do something you like. As a result, the behaviors that you reward will begin to occur more often. You communicate with corrections (a verbal “NO!,” a leash correction, or withholding of the reward, etc.) when they make mistakes or are breaking clearly defined rules. As a result, the behaviors you correct (if they are timed correctly) will begin to decrease in frequency.

Both rewards and corrections must be motivational to the dog. You want your communication to be meaningful. That means that your rewards must be good enough that the dog is inspired to strive for it in the future. For example, if a dog doesn’t like to be petted on the head and that is the reward you use when he does something correctly, you have actually provided a negative experience for your dog!

If you are in a high-distraction environment, the reward you use for ignoring the distraction has to higher than the promise of the rewards the dog would get from paying attention to the distractions. You should also be aware that some dogs prefer a game of fetch or tug to food, while others live for praise. Some dogs prefer Cheerios over steak! Let your dog tell you what they want as a reward…do not put your own preferences on your dog if you want your training to work well.

Likewise, negative consequences must be unpleasant enough to make your dog motivated enough to avoid them in the future. Too many “no, no, no, no, nos” said to your dog without any follow-through will simply become background noise; a kind of nagging they can (and will) tune out. A correction should be enough to stop the behavior…no more and no less.

APPLYING THE BIG THREE

As you train, consider these things: If your dog is not responding, or is acting stressed or confused, ask yourself whether you are really being clear with your dog. Does your training fall into harmony with the BIG THREE? Is your timing correct? Is your training motivational? Are you being 100% consistent? If you are not answering “yes” to all of these questions, you cannot expect miracles from poor Fido.

Finally, don’t forget that training should be fun! If you’re miserable, your dog won’t enjoy the training any more than you are. If you’re having a bad day, do what you need to unwind first, and then train your dog. A saying in dog training is, “It flows down the leash.” Enjoy working with your dog and (s)he will enjoy working with and for you.

 

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