I have been having a good time on Periscope. People who choose to follow me watch live training sessions, hear me talk about dog training, and answer questions from dog owners who are struggling with their dogs. Lately, there have been more and more dog trainers who are showing up to watch my Periscopes. Recently, another dog trainer reached out to me to ask some follow-up questions after having watched my live broadcast on Periscope.
I wanted to share my answer to her questions with you because her questions are really, really good! It may be a little more in-depth than I would typically write for the general public, but I think you’ll get a lot out of it. Her questions stem from her soaking up a lot of information and working towards finding a combination of ideas and philosophies that will all work well together to become her own personal “style” of training to serve her clients. I commend her for reaching out and really thinking about what she’s doing. Without ever seeing her work with dogs, I already know she is (or will be) and incredible dog trainer. She is processing information at a deeper level than most people do, and the end result will be amazing! As a dog owner, you can do this, too. I have paraphrased some of her comments so they will make more sense to you. Follow along with the conversation and share in the comments below what it sparks for you!
The question I received from the trainer was this:
Good evening I wanted to reach out and ask a favor. I saw your periscope about “not listening to the trainer” and totally agree with the importance of not reinforcing inappropriate behavior. Would you be willing to do a periscope about what you did recommend to your client? I’m sure it would help a lot of your followers to know what the alternative is because the idea of “distracting” a dog by asking them to do a behavior and rewarding is almost always the advice I hear from trainers around me.
Thanks for reaching out. I’d be happy to address that, and I understand what you mean!! It’s quite common for trainers to teach people to distract their dogs by asking them to do a behavior. Unless you have a clear understanding of the psychology behind what is going on, you’d think it would work. In the short term, it may even get your dog to stop reacting so, superficially, you would think it was effective. You need to understand a little bit about reinforcement and how it works.
Primary reinforcement is something an animal needs to survive (think food and water, but we don’t usually use water in training!). Secondary reinforcement is something that has been paired with a primary reinforcer enough times that it, in and of itself, begins to be reinforcing to the dog. Behaviors that have been reinforced a lot are secondary reinforcers. So when you distract a dog while it’s doing something wrong by asking him to do a behavior he knows (one that has been reinforced a lot), technically, you’re reinforcing him. Add on that you give him a treat for doing the behavior correctly right after he has done something incorrectly, and there’s a double whammy.
I will defiantly go through your past Periscopes. What about this scenario: I’m working a reactive dog, who will stay on a place command (like on a dog bed) when there are distractions present. He gets excited or barks when a new person walks in the room, but he stays on his place. What’s the best way to tell him he was good for staying but also not reinforcing the barking?
Great question! What is your definition of place? If I tell my son to go to his room and stay there, but, while in his room, he chooses to draw on the wall with a sharpie pen, should I tell him he was good for staying in his room? My definition of place is to stay on the place calmly. So if the dog is not calm on place, in my book, he’s wrong. Make sense? Plus, I’d think, “note to self, this dog may not be ready for distractions as large as a new person coming into the room yet.”
Makes perfect sense. So what about whining whenever sitting still? My mind wants to ignore whining and reward a second of calm which has worked but takes her awhile to get to a good spot each time. I don’t know how to correct the whining if I can’t reward the quiet as she is still in an anxious state of mind, just paused for a second. I don’t want to nurture that state of mind, but that’s how I was taught! We do fun engagement games and keep her moving to manage here at the building but the second we aren’t doing anything or practicing focus or place etc she whines so we wait for focus without whining but it’s still right before the whining so I’m confused as to whether this is helping or not.
I’m watching through your periscopes and just can’t seem to understand how to get a calm state of mind with anxious dogs without rewarding the dog when he’s still anxious! If you have a moment to enlighten me that would be cool.
You have tapped into a very challenging scenario here, and one that a lot of people struggle with. You are exactly right in that you want to be careful you are reinforcing a calm state of mind and not just reinforcing the physical actions of the dog lying down. It sounds like you are doing everything right as far as making sure the dog is mentally and physically stimulated in other ways and the struggle happens when your dog needs to do nothing.
I use a calming exercise to help teach a dog to be comfortable doing nothing. As you have seen on my Periscopes, I take the leash and put it under my foot. I always hold the other end of the leash so the dog doesn’t pull the leash out from under my foot. I position the leash so that it has tension if the dog is sitting and no tension when the dog lies down. And then I wait. I wait until the dog lies down so the dog can learn that lying down results in a release of pressure. Once the dogs learn that lying down is more comfortable, in this scenario, than sitting, the dogs lie down right away when we begin this exercise.
Now it’s a waiting game. I don’t talk to the dog, don’t pay attention to the dog, and don’t give out treats to the dog during this exercise. You mention rewarding your dog for a second of quiet but knowing that you’re also rewarding an anxious state of mind since she is just about to whine again. You are correct in recognizing that you are inadvertently reinforcing behavior you don’t want if you follow that plan.
If you do this exercise long enough and often enough, your dog will learn to calm himself down without you having to do anything. Once he’s calm – really calm – you can reinforce him by petting, talking calmly, or getting up to go do some fun, engaging activities. I often begin with this exercise before I move on to training something super fun and energizing so I’ll be using a secondary reinforcer (the super fun and engaging behavior I am working on) to highlight the calm behavior I just saw. I also see dogs who have learned this exercise be more likely to offer calm behavior when they are not leashed simply because calm behavior is what has been reinforced. It’s our specialty, actually, teaching dogs to be calm so it’s easier to live with them.
When you have an anxious dog, it’s really critical you pay close attention to when and how you interact with your dog. It’s so easy to accidentally reinforce anxiety – all while you are trying to train the dog to be less anxious! Let me know if you have any other questions!