Let me start by saying this: I have made all of these mistakes at various points in my career. Even now, I have times when something goes wrong in a training session and upon closer examination, I will spot one of these mistakes.
There’s no such thing as a perfect training or behavior modification session. I’ve been to lectures by some of the world’s best animal trainers and they have shown videos of themselves training a dog, beluga whale, or walrus and pointed out their training errors. We all make mistakes.
The difference between a good behavior modification program and a bad one is the ability to spot these mistakes and correct ourselves, rather than punish the dog.
YOU'RE TOO CLOSE
Are you afraid of spiders? Me too. But I’m not running around and screaming because of the freakishly large spiders in South America. Why? Because they’re too far away to present a threat to me.
Distance affects reactivity. The closer you get to something you fear, the greater your level of stress. Once the stress reaches a certain level, the brain tells us to react in some way that increases our chance of survival, which can include avoidance…or aggression. The other thing the brain tells us is to stop wasting energy on non-essential functions in that moment. Like eating. Or thinking.
If your dog is exhibiting any type of avoidance or aggression in the presence of a dog, person, or other trigger, you are too close (early warning sign – your normally polite dog starts painfully ripping the treats from your hand). Anything you attempt at this level is only going to amount to temporary suppression of behavior, which is not the same as changing the underlying emotion behind the behavior.
Behavior modification happens at a distance the dog is aware of the trigger but not showing any negative reaction, often referred to as under-threshold. If your dog reacts, MOVE. Get her out of the situation and to a distance that she can give you a behavior you can reward.
YOU'RE TOO LATE
So, you don’t like clickers because they seem gimmicky, and you don’t want to say “Yes!” because it sounds silly. Frankly, I don’t care what sound you use, but if you’re going to be effective, you MUST have great timing. You will never have great timing with just the treat in your pocket.
The point of a clicker (or “yes!” or a click of your tongue, or whatever) is that you have a unique sound that marks the moment of your dog’s brilliance. That sound has been consistently paired with rewards so that the moment your dog hears it, the reward centers of the brain start churning out dopamine, which feels good. So, even if you are caught digging around in the pocket of your jeans for the treat, you’ve still captured the behavior the instant it happened, increasing the chance that your dog will do it again next time.
Why not just use “good dog/boy/girl?” Well, because it’s slower but, more importantly, you probably don’t give your dog a food reward after saying it, so it doesn’t have the association needed to have that feel good effect. Worse, if you say “Good boy” before patting your dog on the head, which he hates, you could be using a marker that has a bad association.
Things can happen quickly with a reactive dog and if you don’t instantly capture that brilliant moment your dog looks at you the moment he spots a new dog, you’re going to end up rewarding the wrong thing.
YOU'RE TOO STINGY
People don’t hire me because they want to teach their dog to walk at a certain speed in a specific position at their side and look up at them when another dog passes by. They hire me because they want their dog to stop lunging and barking at other dogs on walks. They want their dogs to NOT do something.
And yet, this is where I see reinforcement break down all the time – people don’t reward the dog for NOT doing bad behavior to begin with. I see so many dog owners out walking their dogs, completely oblivious to the fact that their dog is looking up at them, seeking some form of feedback. If I had just 2% more Crazy Dog Lady in me, I would roll down my car window and shout, “REWARD THAT, for Pete’s sake!!!”
What does all this have to do with being stingy? Well, if you’re only looking for perfect behavior, you’re missing opportunities to reward less-than-perfect-but-still-better-than-aggressive behaviors your dog might be displaying. I try to teach dog owners to look for two things:
Behaviors which are incompatible with the unwanted behavior (differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior – DRI). For example, looking at you is incompatible with biting a passerby. Your dog can’t do both at the same time.
Behaviors which are different than the unwanted behavior (differential reinforcement of other behavior - DRO). An example would be looking at another dog without barking. While your dog could bark, he’s not doing so in that moment.
Now, technically, your dog biting YOU in the leg would be incompatible with biting a passerby in the leg. That’s why an important part of behavior modification is teaching the dog a variety of behaviors we like BEFORE we head out in search of strange dogs or people.
The higher the rate of reward, the faster your dog will start to form a pleasant association to the presence of strange dogs or people. Stingy rewards result in stingy behaviors.
YOU'RE FORCING INTERACTION
Your dog is doing really well watching kids in the playground across the street, giving you all sorts of good behaviors you can reward. So, you’ve decided you're ready to invite your neighbor and her three dog-loving children to your 800 square foot house for a play date to see how he does.
Dogs DO NOT need contact with the thing they fear in order for it to be a positive experience.
Dogs DO NOT need contact for socialization to occur.
Think of your favorite coworker. Do they hug you a lot? Snuggle up to you during meetings? Of course not! Positive associations can be formed without any physical contact at all.
Fifteen years ago, having a stranger feed your fearful dog was considered a good, positive approach to desensitization. However, we've discovered over the years that if a dog isn’t ready to approach a person on their own, the treat is only going to mask the fear. Once the treat is gone, the dog is now much closer to the person than they are comfortable with. Depending on the dog, they may decide the best way to get distance is to use aggressive behavior. Believe me. I have the torn clothing to prove it.
A far better approach is to start with the fearful dog at a distance from the stranger (and contact prevented by a leash or other management tool), with the owner dispensing all the treat rewards, just as we you do with a dog that was reactive to strange dogs on walks. This way, the dog is exposed to the new person, but at a distance that is safe for both dog and people.
YOU'RE WAITING TOO LONG
Three seconds. That’s the maximum amount of time I permit a dog to interact with a new dog or new person before calling them away. “1 – 2 – 3 - Rex, come!”
That’s because three seconds seems to be just about right for a dog that is uncertain when interacting, but it’s also not enough time for a person or dog to behave in a way that could trigger a reaction in the dog. A first meeting might consist of a dozen 3-second encounters, or it might consist of two. It all depends on the dog I’m working with and the person or dog at the other end of the meeting.
First meetings are important, especially in behavior modification. When things are going well, it can be tempting to keep going and “see how he does,” which is how many bites happen and fights start. Better the first meeting be a positive 3-second experience than a longer experience which only ends up reinforcing your dog's negative association to people or dogs.
YOU'RE TOO POLITE
You have permission to be rude. To turn your back on a perfectly nice person and walk away without a word. Why? Because every second you spend trying to explain to a well-meaning dog lover why your dog doesn’t like their dog or doesn’t want to be pet allows that person to get closer and closer.
It is better to be rude forgotten five minutes later by a stranger than to be paying their dog’s vet bills or explaining to animal control why your dog just bit someone.
Fine. You can’t be rude? Here’s one approach I teach clients which allows you to give your polite explanation, but gives your dog the distance he needs to feel safe. It also turns the sharp, pointy end toward you, just in case.
While I find ideas like the Yellow Dog Project admirable, we're still trying to teach people not to leave their dogs in the car on hot summer days while they shop at the mall, so it's going to be a while before this becomes common knowledge. In the meantime, you're still stuck with trying to explain to someone what the ribbon means. Better to give your explanations over your shoulder or not at all.
YOU'RE NOT LISTENING
If your dog is reacting in a way you don't like, he's telling you something. He's telling you that the environment or situation you have him in is too much, that he doesn't know how to handle it. LISTEN to what his behavior is telling you, then stop putting him in those situations where he feels the need to either escape or defend himself. That's not training. Training is about preparing your dog for those situations, teaching him behaviors that help him cope. If he's relying on escape or aggression, that means he is not prepared.
It is your job as his owner, his guardian, his leader, his hairless ape, or whatever you choose to call yourself, it is your responsibility to keep him safe. When he reacts with fear or aggression, that means that you set him up to fail. I say this not to make you feel guilty, but to encourage you to listen to your dog. If you don't, he's going to resort to instinctive behaviors designed to keep him safe.
I could probably go on, but these are the most common mistakes I see. And it's not at all uncommon to find these mistakes made among those who claim force-free methods didn’t work on their dog.
My hope is that this article will help you recognize the common mistakes we all make – not to make you feel bad, but to help you make the adjustments necessary for success. I've had to re-evaluate and make adjustments many times over the course of my career, and no doubt I will have to do it many more times.