Thursday, January 5, 2012

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad and There You Have......?????

It used to make me angry and indignant to see how much bad dog training advice is floating around on television, the internet and even in books. Nowadays, I have a sort of practiced indifference to it all. It has been my observation that raising a dog is very similar to raising a child, and just like parents of human children don't take kindly to unsolicited advice, so too do pet parents get annoyed when training advice is offered. When it comes to raising and nurturing another living being, somehow the well-meaning intentions of the advice-giver don't matter because the core message sounds the same: You're doing it wrong. To illustrate my point, here are a couple examples of well-meaning (but ultimately not helpful) parenting advice I have received since having a child:

"If she isn't sleeping at night just keep her awake during the day.": Last I checked, sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. This is a home, not Guantanimo! There will be none of that craziness here!

"Slap her hands when she touches something you don't want her to.": This advice was given to us when our daughter was not even a year old. Developmentally speaking, she would not have been able to connect the punishment with the crime, so essentially we would be hurting/startling her for (in her mind) no reason. Not really how I want my child to remember our interactions.

"Don't let having a kid slow you down, they sleep when they're tired!": LIES. Anyone with a child will corroborate that a child sleeping when they are tired is LIES. Usually, when a child is that exhausted, there has been a couple hours of crankiness which is then followed by short and poor-quality (fitful) sleep. Our kid NEVER sleeps when she is tired, she gets more wound up, then inconsolably cranky and when she finally crashes she doesn't crash for long and the sleep she does get is not good sleep.

Now here are some examples of well-meaning (but ultimately shoddy and incorrect) dog training advice:

"The best way to establish yourself as pack leader is to hold your dog on its back/side.": Hoo boy..... I cannot even count how many bite cases I've referred to other trainers that started with "dominance" training. I can't go into too much detail here, but please follow the following links to learn more about why dominance theory does not apply to dog raising or dog training, as well as why it is so dangerous to try to apply it. Please note that both the articles provided are written by veterinary behaviorists (i.e. people who have extensively studied dogs and their behavior.) Link #1 and Link #2!

"A dog who stares at you is trying to be dominant, stare back at it.": Yikes! Another big reason people get bitten is because they stare at a dog. Children in particular suffer because they unintentionally stare at a dog's face. Staring into the eyes is a threatening thing for most dogs. If a dog is staring at you, read the context. Is it scared? If the animal is scared then it may just be trying to keep an eye on you because it wants to make sure you won't get her. Is the dog standing over food or another prized possession? If a dog gives a hard-eyed stare while in possession of something it considers valuable, it could be resource guarding it. Don't stare back and don't try to intimidate your dog into surrendering the object. For more about what to do with a resource guarder, follow this link.

"A dog who pulls when on leash/tries to go through doorways first thinks it is boss and you shouldn't let it!": Gosh, a dog who pulls on leash is indeed a problem. I'm nearly 7 months pregnant and a big dog pulling on leash is actually kind of dangerous for me, as it is for most people. Be that as it may, it isn't that the dog is trying to be boss or is trying to "lead the hunt", the dog has just learned that pulling gets him where he wants to go. In other words, it is a self-reinforced habit. Dogs are gamblers, and if something is rewarding once, then, by the laws that govern learning, they will try again and again. This is one reason why consistency in training is vital to raising a well-adjusted and well behaved dog. It is easier to prevent pulling on leash than it is to cure it. There are a variety of ways to handle pulling on leash, but in my experience the most effective are reward-based (after all, why would you punish the dog when it is just being a dog? It is more humane and effective to instead teach an alternate behavior.) Follow the links for some ideas on how to prevent AND turn around a dog's leash pulling behavior. **Please note that if your dog has been pulling for a while, that there will be an epic extinction burst where the pulling will actually get worse for a short time. Much like how we tend to yell when someone doesn't hear us the first time, the dog is just trying the same behavior (pulling) at a higher intensity in order to get rewarded (move forward) since it has worked in the past. I promise that if you are consistent that the pulling will stop=) **Another thing to note: training should always be at the dog's pace. If at any point your dog is regressing, go back a step or two in training. The goal of training is to always set your dog up for success and reward the success, thus increasing the odds that your dog will be successful again. Link #1, Link #2

I think the most important thing I can add is that a walk is not an obedience drill. A walk should be enjoyable and relaxing to your dog and requiring it to stay by your side the whole time just isn't fair, especially considering all the sights and smells! I like to dedicate about two minutes of walk time (maybe only 15 seconds for a puppy) to "obedience" (sit, look at me, walk by my side...) and the rest is just "let's wander around and look at stuff" time. When walking a dog, keep in mind that if you want your dog to pay attention to you, you will have to be more interesting and more rewarding to your dog than everything around it. Some easy ways to get and keep your dog's attention are act silly (skip backwards, squeak a toy, talk in an upbeat happy voice) and reward your dog with some food or a game (tug etc) when it redirects its attention to you. If you would like to teach your dog to walk by your side, no amount of yanking on the leash or shortening the leash will make the dog want to be near you. The easiest and quickest way to teach a dog to heel is to reward it with a treat (or a toy, whichever is its favorite motivator) when it is in the desired position (aligned with your leg.) Practice around the house and then gradually (at the dog's pace, not yours) start working in more distracting environments. Remember, drilling a dog endlessly on a walk will 1) make the dog dislike walks (which are a powerful reward for many dogs) 2) Dislike training (which makes it very hard to motivate the dog) and 3) could potentially make the dog not want to be around you (I wouldn't want to be around my husband if he were always giving me pop quizzes!)

To me, the ultimate, helpful dog training advice is this: Keep training sessions short, sweet, fun and thus successful. My goal as a dog trainer is to build owners and their dogs up by setting them up for success. When the dog and the person are enjoying training, results are quick to come and long to stay=)

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