By Andrea Servadio, the co-founder and owner of Fitdog. Post updated on 1/2/2020.
This year was the ClickerExpo’s 15th anniversary and my first time attending the expo. We went on Friday with the goal of meeting trainers and identifying new trends. But little did I realize I would be getting an important lesson in psychology, and ultimately how we can make dog training last a lifetime.
What I learned
Thanks to a riveting class by dog trainer and behavioral science specialist Sarah Owings, I learned that positive reinforcement dog training is founded on reinforcement theory and operant conditioning, two well-known principals in psychology. Interestingly, these are not common phrases dog trainers use to describe their training methodology and behavior in dogs, but maybe they should.
A mini psychology lesson
According to Simple Psychology, reinforcement theory, one of the oldest theories of motivation, is a way to explain behavior and why we do what we do. Reinforced behavior tends to be repeated (i.e., strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e., weakened).
Operant conditioning is the use of reinforcers, responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can either be positive or negative.
By using these principals, you can train a goldfish to jump through a hoop or train a human to work harder (such as game theory. Yes game theory is operant conditioning!)
My light bulb moment
I have been working with dogs for over 7 years in a social environment. Over this time, I have seen many types of social and behavioral issues such as reactivity, human aggression, dog-to-dog aggression, leash pulling, hyperactivity, autistic traits, resource guarding, and more. For many years we referred dogs with behavioral issues to our amazing behavioral dog trainer, Jeff Soto, who after two to three weeks is able to successfully unwind many of these behaviors. (Jeff has since retired from dog training.)
The issue is that in many cases, after a week or two at home, the behaviors start to creep back. And this was my light bulb moment.
But first a quick story.
Brecken, my bright and wonderful Jack Russell used to regularly go on hikes with Jeff. We also used to take Brecken on weekend hikes and noticed that he would engage in a guarding behavior where he would run towards an oncoming dog and bark at them so they would “go away”. We would attempt to call Brecken back and tell him “no” but were unsuccessful in stopping the behavior.
I mentioned this to Jeff, and he told me that when Brecken did that with him, he would immediately put Brecken back on the leash and the behavior ended. The next time I was hiking with Brecken, he again raced towards an approaching dog. I said, “no” and immediately put him on-leash. A few minutes later I took him off-leash. When another dog approached, instead of racing towards the dog, Brecken looked at me, and I reinforced his look with a treat. The behavior instantly stopped.
This scenario is an example of an operant environment. Brecken barks at dogs and they go away thereby reinforcing the behavior. By taking away Brecken’s off-leash privileges, we created a negative reinforcement to direct Brecken to stay with us. When he exhibited the desired behavior (staying with us and looking at me), we introduced a positive reinforcement, a treat.
So why is this my ah-ha moment? Because time and time again, I have seen Jeff transform dogs’ behaviors. But when dogs go back to their owners, they’re put back in the environment that originally cultivated the bad behavior. Brecken was trained not to bark and run up to dogs, but that didn’t matter because we weren’t providing the right kind of reinforcement to maintain the desired behavior.
Think of it this way. You go away to a weight loss camp for 2 weeks. While there, you learn how to prepare healthy meals and exercise regularly and subsequently lose 20lbs. You go home and your spouse has McDonald’s for dinner and later is eating chips and cookies in front of the TV. Maybe the first time you can ignore the fast food. But after days of seeing cookies, chips and fast food, you’re probably going to revert to your old ways and gain the weight back.
Well, that’s essentially what is happening when owners don’t reinforce what their dog has learned in training. Dogs come home well-trained and ready for success, but owners tempt them with the metaphorical McDonalds and cookies, pushing them back to their old, bad habits.
How to reinforce your dog’s training at home
Here’s how to reinforce your trainer’s efforts and dog’s good work (in four easy steps):
- Use the same verbal and hand commands as the trainer. Write down the phrases your trainer uses to direct your dog. Remember, your dog already knows how to respond, you just have to learn how to give the command.
- Implement the same reinforcements. In the beginning, this may require you to have treats on you at all times or learn what privileges you need to take away and when. Through consistency, your dog will learn that you and your home are no different than the trainer’s environment.
- Change the environment. Throw away the fast food and cookies. Set your dog up for success. For example, if your dog was bored and barking out of a window all day, change that scenario. You can bring him to daycare, sign up for sports activities during the day, or leaving puzzles or games for him while you’re away.
- Listen to your trainer and follow through. If your trainer tells you to crate train your dog, do it. If your trainer tells you to avoid certain stimuli with your dog, do it. Trust the work that your trainer put in and follow through. Otherwise, you’ll end up where you started, but with less money in your pocket.
Have a training story? Share it with us in the comments below.