The past few weeks have been CRAZY! I’ve been working more hours at my other job, a before/after school program turned into a summer camp for a few more weeks. The increased hours doesn’t lend me in having much time for dog training, but I certainly make time when I get a call.
I met with a woman, I’ll call her Terri, a week or so ago who was interested in training her tiny puppy to become a service dog. I was excited about working with a puppy and at least helping the client start off by getting basic obedience down pat with her pup. My enthusiasm was met with an old skool and in some ways, a hardened heart. This meeting went south, pretty quickly. Terri was quick on telling me her pup, I’ll name Bubba, absolutely knows the word ‘No”. She also shared whenever the puppy gets close to an electrical outlet, she smacks the puppy on the nose. The last thing she tells me before I intervene is that Bubba already drew blood. The puppy was only 8 weeks old! I calmly informed her she’ll get more reliable results with positive reinforcement training and actually, the smack on the nose can get her the opposite of what she’s intending. She took my information and I left knowing I wouldn’t get a call back from her. I’m beginning to understand the culture here in SW Oklahoma is decades behind in dog training and my frustration with this type of culture is how people who adopt this thinking perceive reward based training is so ‘candy’ and passive.
When I came home, I felt so deflated. I felt like I didn’t do enough and the whole meeting was a waste of time and resources. Then I found this article and it solidified the reasons behind positive reinforcement training and the why’s behind it working. Do Dogs Prefer Petting or Praise is a great easy read on the psychology of how dogs learn and what their preferred method of doing so is and why. We know dogs learn by association. We know dogs or any animal for that matter will show a conditioned response after a stimulus if the response is reinforced. For instance, if a dog sits and you give him praise and a treat, he’ll begin to associate that behavior will get him a treat and will start to give it to you more frequently. Then you can begin generalizing the behavior by giving more real life rewards. On the other hand, if a dog doesn’t sit when you need him to and then you pull on this pinch collar, he’ll associate the pinch with not giving you the behavior and will likely only do things in order to avoid the punishment. Then you run the risk of not being able to generalize the behavior using aversive methods since he’ll not be wearing a pinch collar and leash 24/7, so how will a person give a ‘pop of a collar’ when the pup doesn’t sit when asked? There is also the risk of changing the dog’s emotional response towards the negative and potentially making the dog unintentionally aggressive.
What about praise alone? I’ve often had discussions with other trainers about the pros/cons of using praise in conjunction with treats and just praise alone. Well, the findings detailed in the article show dogs don’t understand only the verbal. “If saying “Good dog!” is always followed by a treat, it will come to have some meaning for the dog since it predicts a food reward. However, without this conditioning, it doesn’t have any significance. – See more at: Companion Animal Psychology 2015. Dogs perceive unconditioned verbal praise as no interaction at all while the praise with the treats or the petting is what dogs are looking for in building a relationship with their companion.
Amazing! There is concrete evidence on the types of praise and in encouraging a dog to build a relationship with a person. The more of this idea spreads, more of a culture shift can happen. I know its a long road ahead, but knowing there are some truly wonderful people who are fully committed to their pups, I’m hopeful the tide will turn and more positive reinforcement approaches will be sought after here.