Ever wondered why some people seem to always have beautifully behaved, well balanced dogs? Doesn’t seem to matter what breed they get, or the sex of the dog, or if they do sports training or not; their dogs are always great.
Have you ever wondered how they do it? Is it something they’re feeding or putting in the water? Or have some secret dog supply that no-one else knows about?
Well, I’m going to let you in to their little secrets so you can have a dog like that too…
Here are the top ten habits of successful (positive reinforcement) trainers:
1 They have amazing timing
Yep, after lots of practice, they can time their communications to be delivered exactly when they’re needed. To be able to do this you need to understand what the correct timing is – then practice doing it. No-one is born with this skill!
Here’s the basics:
- Cues/signals need to happen BEFORE the dog makes a mistake or does something you don’t want (cue ‘sit’ before those feet leave the floor).
- Markers/rewards need to happen directly after the correct behavior happened.
2 They manage the environment
To use positive reinforcement (R+) training well you need to manage your dog so they can’t be constantly practicing the stuff you don’t want. That means that for a few months (or longer!) after you get a new dog, your home might sport barriers, baby gates, crates, pens or tether points. For the sake of a few months of inconvenience you get a dog who doesn’t ever bother trying to counter surf, eat the furniture or pee on the rugs – because those habits never got the chance to take root.
Just like gardening, when you plant a new flower bed, you need to prevent the weeds taking over so your favored plants can fill the space. Training is the same. If you prevent the ‘weeds’ and nurture the behavior you like, after a while there is no more room for the ‘weeds’ to take root and become established.
3 They set their dog up for success
Animals and people all learn best in tiny steps. No-one would expect a child in kindergarten to be able to go from just learning their ABC’s to reading Shakespeare a week later! And yet, we do this with our dogs all the time. Far better to set your dog up for success by breaking down the things you’d like them to be able to do (recall from dog play in the dog park?) into tiny, manageable steps so they can be successful throughout the entire learning and practicing process.
4 They develop a trusting relationship
Dogs are social animals. That’s why we love them! By building a relationship with your dog, built on trust, kindness and respect, your dog is far more likely to want to interact with you in preference to getting into mischief. It also makes tasks such as handling, grooming, medical husbandry and “I know you’d rather not do this” requests much easier if your dog trusts you to take their concerns seriously. By not forcing, intimidating or bullying, your dog is much more likely to WANT to do as you ask, rather than spend their time looking for ways to AVOID doing what has been demanded of them.
5 They recognise positive training opportunities
Trainers who can assess situations to provide positive learning opportunities have a head start over those who don’t. As an example, I was walking my very cute, fluffy border collie youngster, Felix, through town a few days ago. He’s ok with people; tends not to initiate contact much with strangers but accepts being patting without freaking.
Because he’s not over friendly, and his opinions are still very malleable, I made a big point of feeding him very high value food every time some stranger took advantage of his good nature to pat him – unsolicited and without asking!
This happened multiple times in a 20-minute walk. It surprised both of us a few times – hands would just appear and bonk him on the head or his bum. Instead of getting frustrated with the people I just stuffed roast chicken in his mouth. Lesson learned? When I’m unexpectedly touched, great things happen!
6 They notice reinforcers
Life is full of reinforcers for our dogs. Many people believe that to reward their dog they can only use food or toys. However, there are many things your dog LOVES to do that aren’t eating or playing with toys. By noticing what your dog loves, you can then add ‘allowing access to’ those things to your collection of rewards. Here are some of the things I’ve used as rewards to train behaviours:
- Chase the water from the hose or a bucket being emptied.
- Getting out of the car for a walk.
- Go through a gate or doorway to access something on the other side.
- Get on the bed/couch for a snuggle.
- Chase the ducks. (Obviously not for a dog who might actually catch the ducks or get close enough to cause them stress!)
- Find daddy’. (Dog liked to run between us on walks so we just gradually increased the distance and then added hide ‘n’ seek.)
- Butt scratches.
- Go for a swim.
Quite simply, the list is endless once you start noticing the things that really float your dog’s boat.
7 They speak fluent ‘dog’
A skilled trainer is always reading/listening to their learner. They know when to back off and to make something easier, when they can push on and ask a bit more and when to stop BEFORE everything turns to custard.
Training is all about communication. Not just you communicating to your dog, but them communicating with you. However, until someone invents some sort of reliable translation device, the only way they can do that is with their behaviour and body language.
By taking the time to learn what your dog is telling you, you can save yourself, and your dog, a whole heap of trouble. Recognizing stress, frustration, fear, anxiety and over arousal can help you understand your dog and adjust how you behave and what you ask of them.
This means you can tell when situations are getting difficult before your dog loses his mind and either freaks, shuts down or goes loopy with excitement! Reading your dog’s body language and becoming fluent in ‘dog’ makes all the other bits of the puzzle a whole lot easier.
8 They focus on good behaviour
There is a school of thought that says the universe will provide whatever you are focused on. I don’t know about that, but dogs certainly do! Nothing mystical about it – what you pay attention to tends to result in reinforcement for your dog.
Most dogs LOVE attention. That means they’ll repeat behaviours that get them noticed. So, it makes perfect sense to pay a huge amount of attention to dogs who are doing things you like! Use management to prevent your dog practicing the things you don’t want and then you don’t have to give any attention in an effort to interrupt them.
9 They provide for their dog’s behavioural needs
Experienced trainers know that training alone isn’t enough to create a well behaved, happy, content dog. Every species has inbuilt behavioural needs. Just because dogs are domestic pets doesn’t mean they have lost those needs.
By providing species and breed appropriate activities, you can really help your dog to become more settled and content.
For the average dog that means regular:
- Exercise (not endless repetitive fetch!), both on and off lead in stimulating and interesting environments.
- Opportunities to sniff and fossick.
- Opportunities to forage (enrichment toys and food scatters).
- Choices of resting places (if possible)
- Social interaction (if your dog likes it, if they’re not social, don’t force them to be!)
- Mental stimulation (training and puzzle solving).
- Bonding time (cuddle time, stroking, hanging out together however your dog prefers).
A dog that has their mental as well as their physical needs met is a much easier dog to live with – their stress levels are reduced; their wellbeing is enhanced and generally life is a lot smoother all round.
10 They have patience
Good trainers know that you can only progress as fast as your dog is able to go. That means being patient on a whole number of levels. Patience pays dividends when you are teaching specific skills, or when things aren’t going to plan and you need to take a step back and re-assess. Being patient is much easier when you realise your dog isn’t being a goon to irritate you on purpose. They’re not ‘doing it wrong’ because they’re defiant.
By taking the other skills of successful trainers on board, most people find that being patient comes far more easily. Once you understand the process, can read your dog, adjust situations as necessary and set both of you up for success, being patient is a bit of a no brainer as there is little reason to be impatient.
None of the habits of successful trainers are inborn traits, they can all be learned and practiced by everyone. No-one is born being a dog expert!
– Sarah and the Gang
PS. New to using food in training? Find out how to use it effectively by downloading the HotDogs guide, Top Tips for Food Use.
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