Training Your Dog Without Aversives
It's pretty common to see articles, blogs and publications from all sort of dog professionals denouncing utilizing aversives in your dog's training approach. I had to admit, I see even less options of what to use instead. It inspired me to write a post about just that - the DO's of dog training!
We've discussed, in detail, about what aversives are, why they're harmful, and why they're not the best recommended method of training by any knowledgeable and reputable trainer. Now it's time to focus on what you can do as a dog owner to train your dog to the level you want without using harsh techniques that can actually damage you and your dog's relationship.
I'll be honest - there's no secret pill, or method that will magically alter your dog's behavior. It only comes about with hard work, dedication, and an investment of time to working on the problem. Dog training is like losing weight - sure you could try to take a pill for it to "melt away" but how often does that work? The most successful way you'll reach your goal is altering your outlook on things like diet, exercise, and self control of your temptations. Basically changing your lifestyle is what will help you lose that weight and keep it off. The only way to get there is to learn how to do it and apply that knowledge by working hard.
So how can you train your dog without using harsh aversives and still get the results that you want?!
My guess is that if you have a dog that is somewhat difficult and you've talked with a trainer, you've heard this word. What is management? When applying it to the dog training world it basically means to manipulate the situation in such a way that you are not allowing your dog access to partake in the bad behaviors. For example: if my dog likes to steal food on the kitchen counters then I will make sure to not leave any food or potentially desirable item(s) my dog may want out on the counter within reach. If my dog likes to bark at other dogs at the back fence, then I will make sure not to give my dog unsupervised access to the yard when other dogs are present. If my shoes are my dog's fancy then I'll make sure all shoes are picked up and put away. You get the gist.
Training an Incompatible/Alternate Behavior:
Have a dog that jumps up on visiting friends? Teach your dog to go to their bed and stay when the doorbell rings. Have a dog that jumps up on the counter while you're attempting to cook?
Teach them that being out of the kitchen gets them food and is WAY more beneficial for them than being in the kitchen with you. You could even get creative with it - teach your dog that the cue to "lay down" is people patting their legs or knees. This could definitely solve the jumping up on visitors problem (and even when the visitors don't follow your rules and encourage the dog to do it anyways.) Basically what training an incompatible behavior means is identify the problem behavior your dog is struggling with and train them to do something else so that they can't physically be doing the bad and good behavior at the same time. Sounds too easy? It is! Doesn't mean you don't have to put in some time to train the new behaviors but the concept itself is amazingly easy.
Another one of those words that you've most likely heard a trainer mention at some point. What is redirection? Basically exactly what it implies which is the action of assigning or directing something to a new or different place or purpose. Dogs will be dogs. They like different things than we do and sometimes they do things we don't understand because they're a different species. They won't learn what you like and dislike unless you tell them. If your dog is doing something you don't like, you could redirect them to something that you do. Have a shoe that your dog loves to gnaw on? Perhaps exchange them for an appropriate chewie instead. Does your dog bark at things they see out the window? I would suggest teaching them a good recall and reward with a treat for choosing you instead of the barking. Again, another simple concept although sometimes the delivery and semantics can be complex depending on the situation. Also, don't be surprised if you have to redirect your dog multiple times for certain things - it takes times to alter behavior so you may have to repeat it several times before your dog gets the hint which is completely normal.
An important thing to remember is Redirection is different than a Correction. A correction merely addresses the bad behavior by adding in a punishment or something unpleasant to the dog when they are misbehaving. It does nothing to tell the dog what you'd like them to do instead. That also doesn't mean that you can't correct your dog either when they are misbehaving - it's just important to understand how to do it properly in order to be efficient. A correction the right way consists of 3 steps which are:
1.) Interruption of the bad behavior
2.) Redirection away from the bad behavior
3.) Immediate Reinforcement of the Redirection
Waiting Them Out:
A lot of the time people are confused about this one and how it can work to their advantage. Dogs are smart and they sure can figure things out on their own pretty quickly if you're consistently setting them up for success. One of the general concepts of dog training is "ignore what you don't like and praise what you do." What that statement basically means is that my dog will most likely repeat behaviors that gets them things they like (such as food, toys, attention) and stop behaviors that gets them nothing rewarding. So, sometimes, just waiting them out until they give you the behavior you want can be an extremely efficient way to fast track to your dog figuring out on their own what you want.
Allow me to give you an example; lets talk about demand barking. It's super annoying right? Let's say your dog LOVES the ball and will annoyingly and persistently bark at you whenever you pick it up. You know what your dog is saying? "THROW IT, C'MON THROW IT! THROW IT NOW! I MEAN IT! I WANT IT, THROW IT!" Sound familiar? If you're wanting your dog NOT to do this behavior, my suggestion would be to not throw that ball until they are quiet. In the beginning, I'm telling you right now, it will probably take awhile for your dog to stop barking so be prepared to wait for it. Also, don't expect your dog to be quiet for a long period of time, or to combine that quiet with a sit or other behavior. Wait for the instant they aren't barking and throw the ball as a reward. As you work on it, you can start asking for longer and longer periods of quiet and a possible sit or down before throwing the ball as you progress. If you are consistent and keep at it, you'll be surprised how quickly your dog will alter his behavior.
This can also apply to crate training. Those of you who tried crate training and gave up because your dog wouldn't stop barking, raise your hand. Yup, I've been there. The dog barks because they want out - it's only natural that they'd prefer to be with you and not in a crate. I've worked with some dogs that will literally scream for hours in the crate and never stop. So how do you work with this - teach them being quiet is more beneficial to them and gets them things they want. Try having your dog in their crate and you sit in front of it and just wait. When your dog stops vocalizing (remember it might be a split millisecond) click (if you are using a clicker) and toss and super high value treat in the crate. Most likely your dog will be interested and stop to eat the treat (remember incompatible behaviors? Your dog can't eat and bark at the same time) and if another second goes by without barking, click and treat that too! I'm going to guess your dog is going to stop for a bit and process what just happened and you can use that to your advantage. Yeah, your dog is going to start barking again, but as you continue to work with this, the pauses will most likely come much faster and time progresses you will be able to completely eradicate the vocalizing in the crate. (*Side Note: Vocalizing in the crate often can be a symptom of Separation Anxiety which can be a serious behavioral problem - if you suspect your dog suffers from Separation Anxiety talk with a force free dog training professional to help you get your dog more comfortable being left alone in a crate in a non-harmful and traumatic way. Another thing to remember about crate training is, DON'T LET YOUR DOG OUT OF THE CRATE IF THEY ARE VOCALIZING. I do my best to drill this in people's heads all the time. Your dog is barking because they want out, if you let them out you are reinforcing the barking and your dog learns that barking gets them what they want. Wait until your dog is quiet and settled and let them out then. This helps reinforce to your dog that being well behaved in the crate gets them what they want - more time with you! Speak with a force free dog trainer is you are having problems with crate training and/or want to make sure you're doing it the right way for your dog.*)
Stimulation: Both Physical and Mental:
But what does this have to do with training your dog? Sometimes dogs do exhibit problem behaviors because they are under exercised and bored. A common phrase I hear is "A tired dog is a good dog," and while that has aspects that can be true, I'm one of those people that believe training and exercise go hand in hand. Just like losing weight would require both a healthy diet and exercise in order to be successful. Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation but its not the only thing that you should do to insure you have a well behaved dog.
Let me give you an example - years ago a woman approached me for help. She had recently adopted a shepherd border collie cross (a very potent breed combo let me tell you) and it was her first dog she'd ever owned. Around that time Cesar Millan's training style was pretty popular in the area and after a bit of self study she decided exercise was the way to go. She already was an avid runner and it was not difficult to implement Cesear's "exercise, exercise, exercise!" training plan in her daily routine. The idea was basically run your dog into the ground so they're so tired that they'll be good! So, she did that. Every morning she would jog her dog for miles and usually in the evenings as well. Guess what happened? The dog built up muscle and extra stamina and needed to run further and further as time went on. She never did any real training with him, just running. Pretty soon she had a dog on her hands that literally NEVER was tired and would destroy her house when she was at work during the day. She was exhausted and he wasn't - that was the main problem. She eventually found me and after I explained what was happening we got to work on a training plan that would help her and her dog. I explained that she was only working his body but not his mind. This was causing him to become overstimulated with the smallest things because he wasn't getting any mental stimulation - everything excited him. He needed to learn to control his impulses and also would greatly benefit from a job where he could use his brain too! Once we got that worked out things went so much better and she was finally able to enjoy the relationship with her dog.
(*Side Note: I'm getting quite a bit of inquiries about impulse training so we'll do another blog on that later on!*)
Properly Understanding and Implementing the Premack Principle:
Huh? What is that? Let me just first say I am SHOCKED at the lack of knowledge in the dog world about the Premack Principle - especially from dog trainers. Why? Because it's a hugely important piece of the how-dogs-function puzzle. I can probably guarantee you too that at some point in your childhood your parents implemented this principle to alter your behavior.
So what is it? The Premack Principle is the observation that high-probability behavior reinforces low-probability behavior. The high-probability behaviors are what the dogs wants and the low-probability behaviors are what you want.
Let me give you an example: a child loves desert but hates vegetables. It's not hard to imagine that scenario. Cake is delicious while brussel sprouts can be lacking in that department. The converstiaon might go like this:
Child: Mom can I have a piece of cake?
Mom: have you eaten your veggies?
Mom: eat your veggies on your plate first then you can have a piece of cake.
Sound familiar? Eventually the child will learn (if the parent is consistent) that its no use asking for desert until their plate is cleaned of vegetables. The high-probability behavior reinforced the low-probability behavior.
I've been using this principle with my dogs for years because it's amazingly useful if you properly apply it to your dog's situation. I have a dog that LOVES the ball - I'm talking goes goo-goo-ga-ga over it. He cannot focus on anything else when its out and/or I'm holding it. Every time I would go for it to pick it up he'd charge and come to sliding stop in front of it, usualy with his teeth landing somewhere on my hand or arm. In his excitement to get the ball he was being extremely rude and hurtful. We implemented the premack principle so now he knows that if he backs up when I reach for the ball and sits then I will throw it for him. Now we can both enjoy the game of fetch without him being pushy and my arm getting scratched up.
I am a part of several dog training related groups on facebook and the other day I was lurking (because I like to read other people's responses but I rarely comment) and there was a discussion about dogs with high prey drives and what the most effective training style for them was. A woman made the comment that dogs with high prey drives best respond to aversive training because it "shows them who's in charge." Before I got a chance to tap out an answer, another woman replied that aversive training was not necessary for dogs with high prey drive and they responded incredibly well to force free training methods. She even specifically mentioned the premack principle (that right there told me she was a knowledgeable trainer because literally hardly anyone knows about it.) While it's true that some dogs do respond to aversive training (remember though the dog is obeying out of fear of being in pain/punished) its only going to give you results in the short term. If you're wanting long lasting results that will stick with the dog the rest of it's lifetime why not invest a bit more time and implement something like the premack principle so you can enjoy your dog and not be burdened by their behaviors?
I have outlined the tools that you need in order to be successful with training your dog!
Dog training is complex but it isn't hard - there are many different aspects, and while this is just a general outline of the tools that you need to be successful, it will certainly be helpful if you apply these to your daily training routine. And remember, always be open to reaching out to a knowledgeable, force-free dog trainer if you need help reaching you and your dog's training goals.