By: Colin C. Tennant MA
Chairman of The Canine & Feline Behaviour Association of GB
The Learning Process
Dogs, like humans, acquire knowledge through association, which is commonly referred to as learned behaviour Unlike us, they do not engage in reasoning, logical thinking or envisioning consequences in the same manner we do. This distinction may lead to challenges for dog owners. We often assume that if we show a dog something it should not do, like chewing on a slipper and shout “No,” the dog will make the connection, much as a human would. However, dogs do not necessarily make such connections. In essence, when we treat a dog like a human, it can only respond like a dog.
Shaping a Dog’s Future Temperament
The most critical period for a dog’s learning is typically between 5 and 12 weeks of age. This relatively short and rapid learning phase is crucial. During this time, puppies should receive exposure to obedience training commands and positive reinforcement techniques, effectively imprinting them with the skills necessary for advanced training, proper behaviour and good manners. Additionally, puppies should be socialised with people and other animals as well as being exposed to various experiences, such as household appliances, other dogs, different animals and various environments. This early socialisation is vital for their normal development. Dogs continue to learn throughout their lives, but it becomes more challenging to alter the behaviour of older dogs with deeply ingrained habits. Early puppyhood is the best time to instil good social manners, obedience and to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, such as chewing valuable items, nipping and jumping up on people. Nevertheless, it is essential to be patient and persistent when working with older dogs, as they may test your resolve from time to time.
Dog Inherited Behaviour
Dogs inherit certain drives and behaviours, often influenced by their breed. For example, a Border Collie has a strong herding instinct, characterised by a keen eye for movement. When such dogs lack the opportunity for regular exercise and mental stimulation, they may redirect their pent-up energy in undesirable ways, such as chasing cyclists or joggers. Redirecting these innate drives is essential.
Inherited behaviours cannot be entirely eliminated, but they can be modified, mitigated or redirected toward less problematic behaviours. For instance, terriers are more inclined to bark and hounds may have a strong desire to follow scents, often appearing deaf to commands. However, it is crucial to understand that poor temperament, such as fears and phobias, may be the result of insufficient socialisation during a dog’s puppyhood. Fortunately, this behaviour can be improved through proper training and socialisation efforts. Some dog breeds possess more resilient temperaments than others. Toy breeds, for example, can exhibit hyperactivity and fearfulness due to their small size in a world of larger humans.
Your Voice Tones
Dogs do not comprehend words by themselves; instead, they rely on the tone and delivery of commands. Effective dog trainers possess the skill of using their voice tone with precision. Commands should be delivered crisply and clearly, typically consisting of one or two syllables. Positive and confidence-building words, when delivered in soft, encouraging tones, hold great significance in dog communication. Using fewer words and phrases while teaching a new lesson facilitates quicker comprehension by the dog.
Dog Reward-Based Learning
As mentioned earlier, dogs learn through association. Praise, whether through verbal commendation, physical affection or treats, serves as a potent motivator and reward when training. When a dog associates an action with positive reinforcement, such as being commanded to sit and receiving effusive praise simultaneously, it quickly learns that the behaviour is rewarding. Repetition strengthens this association, resulting in a well-trained dog. Food, toys, exercise and quality time with you can all serve as powerful reinforcements when introducing new concepts to your dog. Timing is crucial when providing rewards, as they should be given promptly, ideally within two seconds of the desired behaviour, to maximise their effectiveness.
Unrewarding Dog Behaviours
Just as rewards are effective in encouraging desirable behaviour, unpleasant experiences are effective in discouraging unwanted behaviour. While the term “punishment” is often used in dog training, it is important to note that dogs do not experience punishment in the same way humans do, with moral or guilt considerations. For a dog, an unpleasant experience simply makes a behaviour less appealing. There are various ways to communicate to a dog that its behaviour is undesirable, such as firmly saying “No,” gently holding it by the loose skin of the neck or collar or making direct eye contact (except with aggressive dogs). For example, if a dog playfully nips your hand, taking hold of the dog’s collar while issuing a “No” command and maintaining eye contact for a few seconds can communicate your disapproval. Most dogs find this unpleasant and soon associate nipping with the resulting authoritative gaze.
Unfortunately, many humans tend to resort to punishment more frequently than necessary. However, it is possible to train a dog with minimal punishment. Instead of punishing a dog for jumping up, for instance, teaching it to sit and stay when people approach is a more positive and effective approach. It is essential to resist the temptation to give in to darker aspects of human nature and opt for more constructive training methods.
Timing in Dog Training
Timing plays a crucial role in all aspects of training, including issuing commands and providing rewards or corrections. For a dog to effectively learn, praise or correction must occur within two seconds of the action taking place. Whether it is positive reinforcement or discouragement, waiting too long to react renders the training ineffective. For example, if you call your dog in the park and then scold it for not returning sooner after a lengthy delay, the dog will not associate the consequence with something that happened a minute ago. Instead, it may associate the correction with coming to you. Therefore, when teaching a dog, whether through praise or correction, it is imperative to act promptly.
Consistency in Dog Training
Consistency is vital in training and it becomes even more crucial when multiple individuals are involved in altering a dog’s behaviour. Inconsistency, especially when dealing with deeply ingrained behaviours, hinders progress. Inconsistent training can result in a dog that sometimes obeys and sometimes does not. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that everyone participating in the dog’s training follows the same set of commands and actions consistently. Clear communication among family members and involved individuals is crucial to achieving positive results.
An example of human inconsistency is our inability to self-critique. Many dog owners express frustration with their dog not listening, even though they have given clear commands. However, when they watch recordings of themselves giving commands, they often hear something like this: “Oscar, sit, sit down, sit here, stop it – just sit, Oscar, Oscar, sit down, you bad dog” and so on. This inconsistent use of commands can confuse the dog. Training with precise and consistent commands is much more effective. Therefore, dog owners must to be aware of their communication style and strive for consistency to facilitate effective training.
Dog Guilt or Lack Thereof
Some dog owners describe their pets as appearing guilty when they have urinated on the carpet or chewed furniture. However, it should be understand that dogs do not experience guilt in the same way humans do. When a dog looks guilty, it is often responding to the owner’s body language and tone of voice, associating these cues with potential anger and subsequent punishment. Dogs do not possess the human concept of guilt. Therefore, it is crucial to refrain from interpreting a dog’s behaviour as an expression of guilt, because it is unhelpful and can lead to further confusion. Essentially, a dog primarily learns through immediate association, not necessarily conforming to our specific notions of association.
Preventing issues from arising in the first place is always the best approach. Moreover, initiating the dog’s training by using positive reinforcement to convey your desired actions is a superior starting point for nurturing an excellent relationship between you and your wonderful companion.