Sunday, December 28, 2014

I Like My Expectations Low

The title doesn't refer to life in general, or living with a dog in general but training and reality. So many of my clients (and friends and family) have unrealistic expectations for their dogs. The new puppy should sit and wait at the door no matter who is on the other side; the dog who has always barked at passers-by through the window should stop after two training sessions; the dog who pulls on leash should stop after one or two practice sessions of polite leash walking.

Not to be mean to all the wonderful pet parents out there, but those kinds of expectations are crazy.

Would you expect a child to be just as calm at Disney World as they are in their own backyard? Of course not, it's a different place! When training dogs, we need to have realistic expectations of what our dog can do in a given situation. Your dog will be better in your house and in your yard than they will be at a friend's house or at the dog park, until you PRACTICE in those places.
Dogs who do Obedience Trials and Agility shows and all the other dog sports out there have practiced for months or years to get as good as they are. If you want your dog to be that well-behaved, you need to put in the time. Dogs who do cute tricks on TV have spent years practicing those cues, in that environment and all you see is a brief interaction on a 30 minute sit-com.

Please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that your dog is not capable of learning those things. In fact, I am sure your dog is more than capable of learning them as long as you are patient and consistent, and understand a few basic principles of canine learning. I will preface this with a note: there are always dogs who will do great with all learning- quickly and with little need for repetition. These are the exception, believe me. I have met many dogs in my day and most of them need a bit of practice before they are ready for their television debut.

1. Dogs are not good a Generalizing.
     This means that dogs are not (always) understand that "sit" means "sit" no mater where it is said or who says it. Even having the pet parent change their position from standing to sitting and asking their dog to sit can cause the dog confusion. Having someone else ask your dog to sit can easily result in them not sitting. Body language is different, voice tone is different, etc. I love doing an exercise to demonstrate this in my classes- after about 4 weeks of a 6 week class, I will have pet parents switch dogs and practice some of the simple things we have been working on like 'sit', 'down' and 'look'. Most of the time, the dog is hesitant to do what is asked and pet parents are confused, saying "but he knows it!" or they offer each other tips like "we usually say it like this...". It's is a great way to demonstrate how we, as people are really good at doing things exactly the same way that got a good response from our dog the last time. Dogs are great at putting together very specific situational cues and making a connection between those and the expectation of what they are to do. This is why it is important to practice frequently, change environmental markers/cues, change your body language, and get other family members and friends to practice with your dog.

2. You need to be Patient and Fair
     To be a good pet parent, you need to be fair and give your dog time to learn at his or her own pace. To ensure your dog learns on their own, you need to give them opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. I know this is hard, I get frustrated with my own dog sometimes because I don't feel like being patient. Let's use leash walking as an example. Here's my post on how to succeed at walking with your dog. Whenever the dog puts tension on the leash, the human does a simple turn around (no collar pops, no reprimands) so that the dog gets further away from whatever they were pulling towards. This needs to be done every time the dog pulls. Yes- every single time. This is where patience comes in- you may not get all the way around the block, but your dog will learn that pulling on leash does not pay off. By not "popping" the leash or yanking the dog around when they pull, you are being fair and creating a dog who isn't afraid of the leash or other environmental stimuli, because that can and does happen. When you punish a dog with a collar pop (or any other number or compulsion based methods), you are punishing them for being curious or excited about the environment and that's not fair. What if your boss yelled at you for being excited about the weekend- would you be motivated to keep working hard for them?

3. Motivation
This is key to all successful training. What is motivating for your dog may be different from what is motivating for my dog, and it is your job to find out what motivates your own dog. Roxie will do anything for food-to the point that it's distracting at times. She also loves to play tug, so we frequently play tug as a reward. Your dog may like tug, fetch, a frisbee, a ball, a belly rub or treats best. The only way to find out is to try out lots of potential reinforcers. Motivators can change with environmental change as well, and this is why I encourage clients to develop a tiered system for rewards and saving the best reward for the most challenging situations- say walking in through a Farmer's Market on a Saturday Morning. The better you know your dog and what motivates them, the more success you will both find in training and in life.

To get back to the title of the post: this is advice that I frequently give to clients (and friends/family). Lets assume you have successfully taught your dog to do a sit-stay with you going out of sight and they are fantastic with it at home. This does not mean your dog will be just as fantastic when you try this outside at the park or during a walk. This is where (temporarily) lowering your expectations will save you both a lot of headache and frustration. It's easy to do a sit-stay in the house because there are few (novel) distractions in that environment. Outside in the park or during a walk, there are all kinds of fun things that make that sit-stay much more challenging. By lowering your expectations and not anticipating that same long-distance out of sight stay that you get at home and rather asking for a short distance stay with you in sight, you will both succeed.

Another way to ensure success is to incorporate training into everyday life as much as possible. If it doesn't feel like work, you will both enjoy what you are doing and will improve your skills!