Ever marvelled at how fast reward based trainers can teach dogs? How on earth do they manage to communicate so well?
Well, qualified dog trainers regularly critique themselves and observe body language to interpret what the miscommunication may be. Although we have the best intentions, we can make training very confusing, and this can impact how a dog responds. So how can you improve that communication and speed up your dog’s training? This blog is going to consider 3 Training Mistakes and how to avoid them.
If I was to ask you to perform a job 5 times in a row but I only paid you for the one, are you more or less likely to repeat that job? You'd probably be wondering how many times you'd have to work for free before getting paid again, which would definitely impact your motivation. You would likely decide that it is not worth the money.
When we ask our dog to do something repeatedly and then we only reward one repetition out of 5 or more, we devalue the job we are asking them to do. Rather than speeding your training up, you are teaching your dog that you only reward a small percentage of repetitions. Instead, when they hear the cue, we want them to know that it is connected to a pleasant and consistent reward, thereby ensuring the behaviour is strengthened quickly.
Repeating the cue over and over is actually slowing your training down. It clutters your training and dogs often become confused and disengaged. The cue word loses its weight because the reward has suddenly become inconsistent or even non-existent. You are also interrupting opportunities for your dog to think and problem solve. Although we may feel we need to give continual instruction until they respond, it's far more effective to say the cue just once, allow your dog time and space to consider what they need to do and then be ready to praise and reward them when they figure it out. If your dog still doesn't respond it's likely a lack of motivation rather than stubbornness.
Ever gotten frustrated when the treats your dog usually likes are turned down? This happens quite a lot and it's often why many conclude reward based training is ineffective. When a dog fails to work for the treats offered, many rely on aversive and punishment to force compliance. In reality, our rewards need to be flexible. It's obvious that dogs can get bored of the same treats and they are the ones that choose what they are willing to work for. After all, when we decide if we are going to apply for a job, we often base our decision on the pay.
So we have to change our rewards regularly within the same training session to keep our dog interested. It's helpful to introduce a reward gradient, which is basically your dog's top 10 favourite rewards with each number being assigned to a particular behaviour. For example, number 10 could be low value biscuit for a sit, whereas number 1 may be warm hot dog for a recall away from dogs.
Creating a reward gradient involves determining what your dog values most and then assigning the highest value rewards to the behaviours you appreciate most. In other words, the better the behaviour, the better the pay. When you give higher value rewards for a specific behaviour, you communicate to your dog the behaviour you personally value most.
Having a payment system is going to keep your dog interested and motivated. So always bring a variety of treats of different textures and smells. Dogs rely on scent when it comes to choosing food so the smellier the better. If your dog doesn't respond to a lower value treat, always have a plan B treat.
“My dog will sit and listen when we are at home but completely ignores me on walks.”
Have you ever said this? Why is this so common? Well it's due to the fact that dog's do not generalise very well. Dogs do not automatically understand that the same behaviour and training is expected in a variety of environments and situations. This is the reason they suddenly don't respond to learned cues, because the context has changed. This leads to you repeating the cue over and over and getting frustrated when they turn down their treats.
In order to effectively train your dog, you need to do what's called proofing the behaviour. This involves going back to basics and teaching each cue from scratch in a variety of situations. In other words, each time you practice a cue in a new situation, teach your dog likes it's the first time.
It's important to note that when practicing cues around more distractions your dog is going to struggle to focus, therefore we need to use our reward gradient and give our dog better pay for performing behaviours in a variety of environments. The harder it is for your dog to perform the behaviour, the better the pay should be. This requires you to plan ahead and bring a variety of treats of varied value on your walks, so you can take advantage of training opportunities.
Once you have practiced the same cues in a variety of environments, you need to consider the 3 Ds. Distance, Distraction and Duration. For instance, when teaching your dog to wait, you may practice how far you can move away from them, what distractions they can work around and how long they can hold that wait. By practicing each cue and using high value rewards, you give your dog more opportunities to improve their skills and engagement.
So when training your dog remember to avoid repeating yourself over and over, and to allow your dog time and space to problem solve. Rewards are information for your dog, so use their personal preferences and assign value to specific behaviours to keep them motivated. Finally, don't expect dogs to automatically perform behaviours in a variety of situations, unless you have adequately trained them for it. Your dog's relies on you to create learning opportunities, and it's only your belief in them that will limit their potential.