Doggie Doo it’s a new year and people are making resolutions. For quite a few years I’ve been fairly anti-resolution. Why? Because they don’t work! And in the process, they can actually make things worse because you end up feeling frustrated and defeated when you don’t reach your goals.
I’m not saying that people can’t make positive changes in their lives! My entire career as both an academic and an animal trainer has been based on the application of behavior modification, and it can and does work. The issue is in the execution. A few tweaks can make all the difference. That’s what I want to talk about in this blog.
New Year’s resolutions are a lot like dog training. We start out with a big goal that we’d like to reach (lose 50 lbs., get a promotion, go back to school for a higher level degree, etc…) and then we have to figure out how to get there. For our dogs, it might be to earn a title or change an undesired behavior like barking at the door. Having the goal is easy; knowing how to set out a step by step plan to reach your goal is difficult. We all make very similar mistakes: we expect too much too soon, we don’t offer enough guidance, support, and reinforcement along the way, and then we get frustrated and give up.
The thing that those successful with resolutions and with dog training do well is break goals down into small realistic actions and then build on success. Many goals rely on denying ourselves (or our dogs) something we want. This attempt to use impulse control and willpower to change behavior is often doomed to failure.
Impulse control is a limited resource. We can do it for a while, but then our ability to withstand temptation becomes depleted and we lose control. This is why behavior change that relies simply on depriving yourself of what you want are not effective in the long run. So what can we do instead? Instead of eliminating a behavior we can replace it with something more acceptable. Over 30 years ago I quit smoking. Just ask anyone how hard that is! What did I do instead? I ate red licorice. TONS of red licorice. It was a temporary substitute that was better than the undesired behavior. That alone might not have been the reason for my success, but it certainly helped. An acceptable replacement behavior is a good step in the right direction.
We use the term antecedent arrangements to describe setting up the environment so the desired behavior is easy. Let’s say that “hiking more often” is one of your goals. I keep a box in my van that has all my hiking gear in it. There’s no having to find things, or forgetting them when an opportunity to hike presents itself. I can just hop in my car and go when the mood strikes. I’ve arranged my world so that hiking is the easy option. It’s possible to set up your dog’s world so that the desired behavior is the easier option as well.
Avoiding ‘all or nothing’ thinking is going to be helpful for changing behaviors. We don’t have to be perfect, but we often act like one lapse is a total failure. “I ate a cookie, therefore, my diet is ruined, so I will eat the entire box now. And in fact, now that my diet is ruined maybe I’ll just give it up and start again next week.” If I am working on change I don’t expect 100% progress at all times. Regression happens, failures occur, and they can be good feedback to help us change our plans going forward. So let’s say I ate a cookie because a coworker brought them into work and I feel it would be rude to say no thank you (which it is not, BTW). Instead of throwing my diet out the window I could come up with several ideas for dealing with this situation in the future. Maybe I need to avoid the break room at certain times. Maybe I take a cookie and pass it off to another coworker later. Maybe I eat my healthy emergency snack and then bemoan the fact that I’m too full for a cookie. There are always ways.
So what does all this have to do with effective and successful dog training? Everything! Successful behavior change in our dogs relies on the exact same principles. Make your dog training goals realistic, split them into small reasonable actions, replace undesired behaviors with acceptable ones, set up the environment to make success likely and easy, and avoid all or nothing thinking.
Enthusiastic door greeter:
Let’s say that you have a dog who is an overly enthusiastic door greeter and you’d like to change that behavior. First, you have to put in the work to get the outcome. So is this a wish or a goal? Saying “I wish my dog didn’t rush at the door when people come” is just that; a wish. This wish can easily be turned into a realistic goal if you’re willing to put in the time to teach your dog what you want.
A traditional training approach to this issue might rely on force and pressure, and the trainer’s desire for the dog to exhibit self-control. The main problem with this is that it tends to lead to frustration for both trainer and dog. And it’s unlikely to lead to lasting change.
Instead, think about what you WANT as opposed to what you don’t want. Remember, we can’t have a behavioral vacuum. I don’t want my dog rushing the door barking when someone comes. Okay. What’s an acceptable replacement behavior? How about going to a station like a mat or bed when someone comes to the door? That seems like a nice option instead. It’s an incompatible behavior. Your dog cannot rush the door and go to his mat at the same time. It gives your dog a desirable task to perform instead of the undesired one. When there are two options available (rush the door or go to the mat) your dog is going to choose the one that is the best bet; the one that pays off well and consistently. Make that the behavior you want.
Once the task has been decided on the approach would then be to make the station a highly reinforcing place to be. That’s where the Pet Tutor comes in as a VERY handy tool. If your dog has already been introduced to one then you know they come to LOVE them. Using the Pet Tutor as my treat delivery system on the mat has several benefits, including my dog’s ability to perform at a distance from me and providing my dog with an external focus for reinforcement.
I simply set up my Pet Tutor close to my station and shape my dog by feeding whenever he’s close to, then eventually when he’s on, the mat. My ultimate goal is for him to lie down on the mat. This is where my ability to split the desired behavior down into small easily achievable pieces is important. If I’m not reinforcing regularly (every 3-5 seconds) then I’m waiting for too much. In that case, I need to lower my criteria, possibly to my dog simply looking in the direction of the mat to start. My goal for this step of the process is for my dog to become magnetized to the mat because being on it always leads to high levels of reinforcement. Basically, I want the opportunity to get on the mat to make my dog very very happy. I need this to happen before I move on to step 2, adding the sound.
My ultimate goal is for my dog to hear the sound at the door (either bell or knocking) and automatically run to his mat and lie down on it. Step 2 of training towards this goal involves adding the sound before I reinforce my dog for being on the mat. So the dog is on the mat, I knock on the doorframe, then I quickly reinforce with the Pet Tutor. Repeat repeat repeat… The knocking or sound of the bell must come BEFORE the reinforcement. The sequence must be sound first, then reinforcement.
What if your dog jumps off the mat when he hears the sound? I will do two things. First, I will go ahead and reinforce anyway. Yup, even if my dog heads to the door I will reinforce at the mat as quickly as I can. For some dogs, the realization that there will still be cookies even when they hear the sound is enough to keep them there. But if not, then I know I’ll need to alter the sound to make it much less intense. I need to find that sweet spot where my dog hears the sound but doesn’t feel compelled to react to it. One light knock rather than 4-5 hards ones, for example. Or the sound of a doorbell on an app on my phone with the volume very very low to start. I will work on this stage until the sound leads to my dog staying in a down and orienting towards the Pet Tutor in anticipation of the treat.
Then finally, I will add in step 3 where my dog begins off the mat and goes to it when he hears the sound. Instead of starting with my dog on the mat I start with my dog off of it. I can do this by tossing a cookie or calling the dog to me for a cookie. Then I make the sound. If I’ve done the first two steps well my dog will hustle over to the mat and I will signal the Pet Tutor to reinforce him. Then get my dog to leave the mat with a treat toss or recall and cookie from my hand, make the sound, wait for my dog to return to the mat, and reinforce. Again and again and again.
Here’s a video of Star and I going through a very quick compressed version of these three foundation steps:
To recap, the three basic steps are:
1. Teach your dog to LOVE that mat!
- While your dog is on the mat add the sound (knocking or doorbell ringing) before you feed.
- While your dog is off the mat add the sound, wait for your dog to go to the mat, then feed.
These steps are laying the foundation for the real-life situation of someone coming to your door and either knocking or ringing the bell. There are many more steps to making this useful for day to day situations. One of these is setting up the antecedent arrangement. Have your mat out in a convenient spot and ready for your dog. Have your Pet Tutor close by and loaded with good stuff. Being ready is the first step to successful training. If you have to get up and track down all your stuff then it’s just easier to keep binge watching Netflix and the training doesn’t get done.
If you really want to make a New Year’s resolution then how about this one? Do something fun with your dog every day! My dogs think training is the most fun they can have, so I just need to get up and do it in order to make them happy. Doing a few minutes of fun training most every day (remember, no all or nothing thinking!) is a great resolution and will make both your life and your dog’s, richer.
Deborah Jones, Ph.D. is a retired psychology professor who now trains animals full-time. She has been training for 25+ years and focuses on positive reinforcement based methods. Deb has written 12 books on dog training and has helped develop several DVD series. She has also trained and shown multiple breeds to high-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience. She is currently teaching online training classes and webinars at www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com. Visit her website at www.k9infocus.com for more information.