What is animal training? Animal training is the act of encouraging or discouraging an animal to perform specific behaviors more often or less often under particular circumstances.
It’s really all about increasing and decreasing behaviors.
Every time you increase one desirable behavior, you decrease multiple undesirable behaviors. For example, when you teach your dog to “sit”, you decrease jumping up, bolting out open doors, et cetera.
When you increase “come”, you decrease running into the street, chasing cars, et cetera.
One of the best animal trainers in the world, Kayce Cover, M.A., B. S. taught me the following summarizing concept.
Successful animal trainers all have these traits in common. Successful trainers know:
- which components of a behavior he or she wishes to increase or decrease
- how to communicate this to the animal
- how to motivate the animal to want to perform those behaviors
Components of Behaviors
All behaviors consist of many individual behaviors. Dog trainers analyze behaviors and decide which of the individual components should be increased and decreased.
Before a trainer can form a lesson plan, he or she must identify the components that make up the target behavior and identify which skills or components should be taught first.
This sounds easy, but many people never think about it.
In fact, until they meet me, most of my clients never formally teach their dogs the most basic skill that is necessary before the dog can learn “sit” and “come”.
What is the basic skill, the first component or prerequisite behavior your dog must know to comply with “sit” or “come”? It is “Attention”.
Although you can teach your puppy “sit” and “come”, without ever teaching your dog to look towards you on command, these behaviors are likely to break down when there are distractions.
For instance, your puppy may come when he or she is in the back yard and totally ignore your requests when running free in the front yard.
The point is – before you can teach your pup to perform a behavior in distracting environments, you should teach, practice and refine each component of the behavior in less distracting environments.
And yes, before you can do any of these, just like a trainer, you’ll need to identify all the components of the behaviors.
Communicate and Motivate
In order to communicate with anyone or any animal, we must have a language in common. Since dogs don’t speak our language it’s our job to introduce words, signals or phrases and explain their meanings.
Without knowledge of how animals learn, we often send conflicting signals.
“No” and “Come”
Most people naturally use the word “no” and expect their puppy to understand the meaning. People add harsh voice tones in attempts to explain the meaning.
In some instances with some dogs, it works. The dogs stop the behaviors and never perform those behaviors again. In other instances, it fails miserably. More often people unknowingly give the puppy conflicting information.
For example, a puppy jumps up and the person says “no” as he or she pushes the puppy off. This is a very common mistake.
The act of touching the puppy with their hands, and talking to the puppy (even in harsh tones) tells the puppy that jumping up is a good strategy to receive attention and touch.
When your pup jumps up, he or she is soliciting touch and attention. To communicate to your very young puppy that jumping up is not the best strategy to receive touch and attention, just turn and walk away.
Take a few steps, turn to face your puppy. Ask him or her to sit. Once your puppy sits, deliver attention and touch!
Since puppies rarely learn from one instance, your puppy will immediately jump up when you offer attention for sitting. That’s okay, just disconnect again and repeat the sequence. After a few days with many repetitions, your puppy will catch on!
This sequence communicates two concepts. One, “jumping up makes me go away” and two, “sitting politely makes me deliver attention and touch”!
Another example is the word “come”. People say “come” and expect the puppy to run towards them.
This may be effective for a 10 week-old puppy, but as the dog ages, he or she gains confidence and is less likely to come just because the people say the word “come”.
Off leash obedience is an advanced skill. You’ll need to practice on leash in many situations before you can expect your dog to come anytime you call.
Some people actually teach their puppies to ignore the come command. They “end” their puppy’s fun or even punish their puppy after they come.
Examples are scolding and taking away an item after the puppy comes, crating the puppy and leaving the house after the puppy comes, pointing to a mess on the floor and scolding the puppy.
Hugs and Head Pats
Other primitive forms of communication include hugs and head pats. Sometimes we are so sure our dogs enjoy particular interactions, that we fail to recognize their likes and dislikes.
A natural assumption is that puppies like to be picked up and “loved”. Another assumption is that pups really enjoy a pat on the head.
All dogs do not necessarily like hugs or head pats.
Many dogs consider top-of-the-head pats and hugs as unpleasant. These dogs lower their heads and/or move away from their people.
Watch your puppy’s body language. If your pup starts moving away when you reach for him or her, whatever it is that you usually do, is not considered pleasant by your puppy!
If you watch dogs at work or play, you’ll notice they use their bodies to block or herd other animals. When dogs use body blocks, they rarely make contact. They control the other animals’ access to areas by occupying territory with their bodies. In addition to body blocks, they use head position, tail position, body stance, et cetera to communicate.
We can’t imitate canine body language but in some situations, body blocks are an excellent method to teach dogs about areas that are off limits.
Anytime you gently restrain or touch your dog, you are rewarding your dog with attention and touch.
Instead of reaching for your dog’s collar, herd that rascal away from the door, the kitchen counter, the living room, et cetera with a body block!
To use a body block, just step in front of your dog and block his or her access to the area.
Because dogs naturally control space with their bodies, they understand the meaning of body blocks. Using body blocks is a clear method to communicate “Stay away, this area is off limits”.
Alan J Turner, Companion Animal Behavior Counselor & Trainer – Canine Specialization
Private and Group Dog Training in Memphis, TN
Owner: How’s Bentley