column By: Alec Sparks | October, 21
For countless years, many training approaches have relied on the “If I don’t do this, something will be bad for me” system to teach dogs’ behaviors. I really don’t think I need to detail the various ways this system is employed. Hey, 1960 called, and it wants its training methods back!
One reason many trainers who still use the “do this or something bad happens” system are more successful with high drive/desire dogs is that they are generally more able to take that type of program and still excel. Lower drive/desire dogs generally don’t handle the training with high levels of pressure well, nor do a lot of mentally sensitive dogs.
Now teaching with pressure is a gray area, I’ll admit. With pointing dogs 6 months old and above, I train the initial foundation on a check cord. Under 6 months and it’s likely I’d just be patterning them while they run free. Someone could try to argue that method is using “something bad” if they don’t comply. Fair enough. In theory. But if you come by and watch the process in person, I doubt a reasonable person would think the dogs I’m working are complying because they think something bad will happen on a check cord if they don’t comply. Watching a few videos on YouTube of people flipping young dogs around on a check cord looks like the something bad version of check cording to me.
Flushing dog are all taught foundation behaviors using a reward base marker system, and only after that do they transition to mild enforcement of those taught skills.
The “something good” system for the pointing dogs I train is really a reward base marker system in many respects, and while the reward isn’t food, it is surely something they desire: movement, birds or retrieving, for example. “If I stop on Whoa or a bit of restraining pressure and release from the check cord, I get to run again” might be one example.
In my experience, helping dogs understand the behaviors you want to instill rather than punishing (gray area) is more enjoyable for both dog and trainer. Doing so also achieves success with dogs of modest desire/drive. Again, in purely scientific terms, even mildly restraining your pup with a finger holding a flat collar is “punishment.” But I’m speaking about what I believe the dog is experiencing.
Teaching with fear or a high level of correction or punishment is “successful,” so many trainers employ it. But it’s 2021, long past time for trainers to stop using fear and high levels of pressure to teach behaviors. Noncontextual use of a remote collar for command training and Whoa training where the consequences of movement have a serious outcome come to mind as a place to start.
Another area where thoughtful trainers might want to rethink their methods is in pacing daily training sessions. Most people always train for maximum advancement of certain behaviors every training session. Every Whoa session is pushed to eventual failure; field training is pushed to distances and distractions to elicit failure.
I’ve always had a different approach. I came to professional training with a long background in teaching a variety of sports to people. There, I had long learned two things: First, people learn and retain better when they are relaxed, and second, if pushed to the point of physical and mental fatigue, the ability to learn falls off sharply. I’ve found the same to be true with dogs.
A typical training week for many dogs in my program might look like this:
• Day 1 – Review and solidify skills from previous day’s training after day(s) off
• Days 2 and 3 – Advance skills as much as possible without reaching the point of failure (I might advance Whoa for 2, 3, 5 and 7 seconds successfully rather than reach a duration where the dog fails.)
• Day 4 – Back off to a super level of trained compliance and let them enjoy success
• Day 5 – Advance skills as much as possible without reaching the point of failure
• Day 6 – Back off to a super level of trained compliance and let them enjoy success
You should realize that my first rule is to abandon any plan if circumstances require it!
Now, fairly enforcing or the dog experiencing consequences of trained behavior using a method the dog understands is a totally different ball game. We’ll save that for next time.