Our training options
Dog training is basically a handler reinforcing the behaviours that they would like to see repeated from their dogs. There are four types of reinforcement available to trainers:
Adding something that the dog considers valuable such as a titbit to a response, to increase the likelihood of the dog offering that behaviour again.
Giving the dog a titbit for sitting
Adding something unpleasant to suppress a response.
Electric shock collars
Removing something unpleasant that results in a good experience for the dog.
Choke chains tighten uncomfortably when the dog pulls on its lead, but the pain stops when the dog ceases to pull
Removing something valuable to suppress a response.
Removing your dog from the room if it jumps up on a guest
Classical conditioning describes a form of learning where the subject has no control over how they will respond – it is an involuntary reaction to something they are presented with. This was first documented as a result of Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. He discovered that if he rang a bell and then presented food to the dogs, that after a few repetitions the dogs would come to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. It is an important concept to understand and bear in mind whilst dog training as classically conditioned responses can work for both good and bad.
A good example of a negative classically conditioned response is a dog that is frightened of fireworks – the noise of fireworks going off invokes a physiological response, and the poor creature cannot control its fear at the sounds. When classical conditioning is at work, even the best-trained dog may fail to respond to previously learned cues.
It is possible to overcome the negative effects of classical conditioning, and it can be done in two ways. The first is by immersion or flooding. Take the example of a dog that is frightened of children. We could take him into a school hall full of children that have lots of treats for him, and it may help him to learn that there is nothing to fear from children as he had previously thought. However it may have the opposite effect and should he not overcome his fear, it may well become far worse than it was in the first place.
The second alternative to overcoming fear and anxiety is far less hazardous, but does take more time. This is the desensitization and counter conditioning approach. So to start with the dog may find it possible to tolerate one child at a distance (who is told not to even look at the dog) without getting worried, and is heavily rewarded for remaining relaxed. The dog can then be brought closer and closer, and at each stage is rewarded for remaining calm, until perhaps it can accept food from the child without getting worried. The time and amount of exposure to the cause of the dog’s anxieties is gradually increased until you have counter conditioned a more pleasurable response than the one that existed previously.
This is the opposite of classical conditioning, as it is a form of learning where the subject is in control of the responses it offers. It works on the logical assumption that any animal will repeat behaviours that earn them rewards, and curb behaviours that invoke negative consequences. We can achieve extremely successful results in dog training when we allow the dog to offer responses and let them work out which behaviours we want by the positive or negative feedback we give them. Good trainers begin by giving the dog limited options, so the correct response is the most obvious, but it is not impossible for the dog to make the wrong choice. This can be observed when teaching a dog to go through an agility tunnel. The dog is held close to the entrance of the tunnel, with its handler the other end – by choosing to go through the tunnel it can earn a reward (positive feedback) if they choose not to go through then they choose to be apart from their handler (negative feedback).
As well as teaching desirable responses, we can also correct negative ones through operant conditioning. Correcting a healthy, adult dog that isn’t properly toilet trained is a good example. At first we set the dog up to be correct by regularly offering it opportunities to relieve itself – on waking, after meals, etc. When the dog performs outside we reinforce the correct choice with praise, treats or toys, making a big fuss of the fact that is has made a good decision. If they make a mistake and relieve themselves indoors, they are ignored and no reinforcement is given. The dog quickly learns that it is more rewarding to relieve itself outside and therefore chooses to perform in the garden rather than in the house.
Transfer of Value
When we first teach our dogs the agility equipment, the equipment is of neutral value – generally dogs don’t have much of a reaction to it. The reason they gradually become more excited at the prospect of being allowed to use the equipment, is simply because the equipment becomes the pre-cursor to something valuable – usually treats or a toy. We transfer the value of the delicious titbits or special toy, into the equipment by continuously pairing the two together.
The principle is straight forward and applies in everyday life as well as dog training ;-)
- Do something that I want, and I’ll let you do something that you want
So for the dog that is vocal and hyper when faced with the agility equipment that we’ve created lots of value for – remain quiet and calm and you’ll be allowed to stay in the training environment and complete the equipment. Simple! :-P
What is clicker training?
Clicker training is a positive form of classical conditioning, and one that is hard to imagine modern dog training without. The clicker works in the same way as Pavlov’s bell, it pairs a meaningless stimulus (the click) with something the dogs loves (food or a toy). We can then use this conditioned response to shape behaviour in a very specific and accurate way.
We use the sound of the clicker to mark behaviour that we want from our dogs, and would like to see repeated. Firstly we have to pair the sound of the clicker with something yummy, otherwise the sound will mean nothing to the dog. Clicker training is especially useful when we’re training precise behaviours, or shaping a bigger behaviour by breaking it down into lots of little steps.
The rules of clicker training
Click = Reward
Always, always, always – even when we’ve clicked something by mistake
Really small treats
You’ll use a lot and we don’t want to end up with an overweight dog!
Practice away from your dog, have someone bounce a ball in front of you and try and click the exact moment the ball bounces. Not as easy as it sounds!
Make sure you’re clear about what it is you want to achieve from a training session before you get your dog – write it down, and perhaps video a couple of sessions to see just what you’re reinforcing
Rate of reinforcement
To have a willing and enthusiastic training partner, you need to be sure that you’re setting them up to be successful so that they can earn their reinforcement quickly
Adding a cue
Don’t be in a hurry to name a behaviour you’re teaching – you could be labelling a lack of understanding on your dog’s part, and that will remain with the tag you’ve given it