Trial and error shapes most of the learnt behaviour of dogs and like people, they begin to learn as soon as they are born. In order to train your dog to sit, stay or jump through hoops you need to understand the keys to effective training. They are simple principles and apply whether you are training a puppy or a circus elephant:
TIMING. A behaviour must be followed immediately by an outcome if the dog is to learn from the experience. You have about two seconds to reward (or punish) a behaviour before the dog will no longer connect the outcome to that behaviour REINFORCEMENT. The outcome of a behaviour reinforces a particular behaviour. Positive reinforcement, like food treats, rewards desirable behaviour, making it more likely to happen again. This is usually more effective and enjoyable for all concerned than negative reinforcement, which uses an unpleasant reinforcer to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour happening. The choker chain is a classic example of negative reinforcement – dogs learn to avoid being choked. The most effective reinforcer for pups is food, and a slightly hungry pup will work hard for a tiny piece of cabanossi or a dried liver treat (my favourite is Vet’s Best Rewards and I will provide a sample with your puppy). Combine food rewards with praise and they will soon learn to recognise ‘Good dog’ alone as sufficient reward PUNISHMENT. Punishment is an unpleasant outcome to a behaviour, which makes the behaviour less likely to occur. Punishment is usually less effective than positive reinforcement and if delivered by you, may lead the pup to fear you or simply to get very good at ducking out of the way. The place for punishment is when you want your pup to stop attacking inanimate objects like your washing, and the best way to do this is to make the object punish the pup – I give some tips later on EXTINGUISHMENT. Behaviour that is not reinforced will eventually be extinguished – there’s no point in whining at the door if it never opens. Extinguishment is a very effective way of eliminating undesirable behaviour. COMMANDS (Conditioned Stimuli). A command is a stimulus your dog learns to associate with a particular response. You need to be consistent in your commands. ‘Sit’, ‘Come’, ‘Heel’, ‘Behind’ – it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you always say the same thing. SHAPING. Complex behaviour is usually ‘shaped’ – you can’t expect the pup to get it right the first time. The trick is to set your pup up so that he is likely to perform the behaviour you want. Give the command and immediately reward an approximation of the behaviour. Once your pup starts to make the connection, get tougher until you only reward him for doing exactly what you want. INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT. Once a ‘trick’ has been learnt reasonably reliably, the best method to ensure it is not forgotten is to decrease the frequency of rewards until the behaviour is only rewarded every now and again. Your dog will work harder if he never quite knows when the next treat is coming.
Training can start immediately – no dog is too young or too old to learn new tricks. Training specific behaviour is easier to demonstrate than to describe but I’ll try:
HERE or COME. Easy: as the puppy is walking towards you, go down on your haunches and call ‘Here’. As soon as he gets to you give him a tidbit and say ‘Good dog’. SIT. Standing in front of a slightly hungry pup with a small piece of cheese or cabanossi (or a liver treat) held just above his nose, say ‘Sit’ and move your hand back towards the puppy’s tail – he will go back on his haunches. As soon as he looks like sitting, give him the tidbit and say ‘Good dog’. Soon he will get the idea and you then only reward a proper sitting response. STAY. Once your pup can sit reliably, stand directly in front of the sitting pup, say ‘Stay’ and take two steps backwards. If the puppy doesn’t follow you immediately go back, reward him immediately and say ‘Good dog. If he does, say ‘No’, put him back where you placed him originally and start again. Gradually, move further away.
The principle involved in each case is to put the pup in the position where he is likely to do the behaviour anyway, then associate the behaviour with a word command and immediately reward the correct response. As the penny drops, which it will do very quickly, you can make the conditions tougher before a reward is elicited. Once the response is reliable, begin to reward only intermittently. Finally, remember that puppies get bored easily – 5 minutes of training at a time is enough until the pup is 4-5 months old.
Owning a well-trained dog is very rewarding for both you and your dog, and if your youngest child can successfully tell your dog to lie down, you have a bombproof pet. Many vet practices run Puppy Preschools and these are an excellent place to start training. A very good book on the subject is David Weston’s Dog Training: The Gentle Modern Method, Hyland Press, South Yarra, VIC
Most people are happy just to have a well-mannered dog who comes when he is called and sits on command, and this is really all that you need in order to live happily with your dog. Some people are bitten by the bug when they find out how easy it really is to train their dog. The Australian Association of Pet Dog Trainers is an organisation that promotes positive training techniques – they have a website at www.apdt.com.au and can direct you to obedience and agility courses in your area. Be warned that there are still some traditional obedience trainers who frown on food rewards as positive reinforcement and insist on the use of choker chains, which are very old-fashioned tools that can cause pain if not used properly. If you have been finding the approach outlined here effective, you might check on the trainer’s attitude before you sign up for obedience lessons.