Pass the Salt, Please

You may be wondering what salt has to do with training your pets, so let me explain.

In a e-Book by Sue Ailsby that i’ve been reading (which you can download FREE here), she wrote something that really left an impression with me. She wrote that we should cue our pets to do something just like we would ask a friend to pass the salt across the table. That is we should ask our pets in a happy and friendly tone, rather than telling them what to do in a stern voice.

pass the salt

Why should this matter? For me it comes down to training. If you’ve truly put the time into teaching your pet what a cue means, and you’ve demonstrated that when he does the job he’ll get something good, then you should never need to get stern. If they don’t oblige, you either haven’t trained the behaviour well enough yet, or you need to increase their motivation.

Too often we see owners really getting frustrated with their pets, especially in the dog world. “Fido sit. Sit! SIT! SIT DOWN!!!” Eventually Fido might sit, but not with enthusiasm. He might only be sitting to avoid his owners wrath, or a leash pop, or a hand pressing down on his backside. If Fido knew that “Sit” means put your bottom on the ground whether we’re at home, outside, or at the vet, and he had been motivated well to perform that “Sit”, then there would be no need to get stern.

A friendly tone induces friendly feelings, and when we treat our pets with kindness and mutual respect THAT is when we see great training results. We are way past the days of drilling obedience into our pets. We have the tools to teach our pets any number of useful behaviours without using force or corrections. Next time your pet fails to listen to your cue, look at how you can train the behaviour rather than increasing the volume of your voice.

Train smart, not tough – and pass the salt, please!

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Myth Busting: Dominance and Dogs

This is a topic i am extremely passionate about. I still remember when i got my first dog at 13 years old and a trainer came to our home to help me with training my new puppy. It was all about “uh uh!!” and “no!!” and most importantly about establishing myself as the “alpha” dog.

dominance dog trainerA long time ago, some research was done on a group of captive wolves. The researchers observed that there seemed to be a whole lot of conflict in the group leading to there being an alpha male and female and a group of subordinate wolves. The dog community liked the term “alpha” and, figuring that dogs descended from wolves, decided that to train their dogs they would have to be “alpha” too. This led to trainers instructing people to go through a range of routines, such as being first through doors, never letting dogs on furniture, always eating before their dog, etc, all in an effort to be “alpha” in the “pack”. In extreme situations people were even instructed to pin their dogs on their back until they “submitted”.

Since this original research was done, zoologists and others in the scientific community have spent time observing wild wolves and have found that these wolves actually live in family groups. Just like in a human family the breeding pair (parents) are naturally the leaders, and the offspring from previous litters live cooperatively to help hunt and raise the new litter. Eventually the older offspring will leave to find their own mates, and they will then become the leaders in their own pack. They are not vying for “dominance” or to be “alpha”, they are living and breeding cooperatively in a way that improves species survival.

Watch David Mech, original researcher who coined the term “alpha”, explain why it is no longer relevant.

It is important to note that wolves don’t usually physically fight amongst their pack/family over things like “status”, and even scuffles over resources are highly ritualized – meaning the wolves use their well developed range of body language to diffuse conflict before it becomes physical (it is a waste of energy, and a survival risk, to get physical with your own family in the wild). This raises questions about the validity of any kind of checking, tapping, or other “bite” substitutes traditional trainers use “to mimic dog behaviour” when correcting a dog.

dog body languageWe have also got a lot more information on how wild/feral dogs live in various parts of the world. Rather than working cooperatively in a group, or pack, they tend to live independently in areas rich in resources (such as at tips, or in villages). Rather than hunting to take down large prey, they scavenge alone. They come together to mate, and even that is random – not based on who is “alpha”.

So we know that wolves don’t waste energy vying for alpha status, and we know that despite common ancestry, feral dogs behave and live in completely different ways to wolves. So why are we still “dominating” our pet dogs?

Dominance, as it applies to dogs, is not about status but rather about resources. If you have two dogs, one might always be first to get to the food (or perhaps it can take food from the other). This dog is dominant in that context. When it comes to play the other dog might get the ball first, and so it would be dominant during play. It is a description of behaviour in context, not a description of personality type, and it is a fluid state.

Describing certain behaviours, such as jumping up, stealing food, and rushing through doors, as the dog being “dominant” is not only flawed, but it instantly puts us in a confrontational state of mind. We have to show the dog who is boss!! Actually, dogs jump up to get closer to our face, a natural dog greeting, and because we often accidentally reinforce behaviours such as this. They steal food because it tastes great, and we haven’t taught them not to. And they rush through doors because there is something good on the other side. These are training problems, not personality problems.

We need to stop using dominance as an excuse to bully our dogs. Rather than pushing them around and engaging in pointless routines, we can be good leaders by showing our dogs what we want them to do in ways they can understand, such as through positive reinforcement training, and motivate them to do it again next time. Try it, your dog will appreciate it!

Why “shut down” is different to well-trained

With the reign of popular dominance/punishment-based trainers on television and in book stores, force-free trainers are faced with the challenge of educating people on the differences between having a “shut down” pet and a well-trained one.

When you use punishment-based methods in animal training, what you are essentially doing is suppressing behaviour. You are saying “no, don’t do that…not that either…or that”. The result for many pets trained this way is that they simply “shut down” and stop offering behaviour. These pets lose interest in their surroundings. If they don’t interact with their world, then they won’t get punished. They withdraw into themselves.

Dog TrainingUnfortunately, many people, in the absence of the problem behaviours, see their pet as “cured”. Does it matter that their pet is now a shadow of its former self if they are no longer having to put up with annoying problem behaviours?

For anyone who has experienced the delight of training with positive reinforcement the answer is obvious, of course it matters! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, birds, or any other species, rely on us – we influence their whole world. When they eat, play, exercise, and rest are all largely controlled by our decisions. We should be committed to enriching their lives in our care, which means providing them with plenty of opportunities to behave and act on their environment in a meaningful way. We can do this through positive reinforcement.

Rather than punish our pets for behaving in ways that annoy us, we can take a moment to plan and set their environment up to encourage good behaviours. We can purposefully train them to do behaviours we like, and motivate them with things they like so that they actually want to listen when we ask. And we can provide them with physical and mental stimulation so that when our lives call us away (to work, or social activities) our pets can rest happily in our absence. This is a well-trained pet!

Positive dog trainingIt’s time that we pet owners take a modern, force-free approach to pet training and ownership. If our pets are misbehaving we should see it as a training problem, not a pet problem. Training is our responsibility, and we should approach it with our pets welfare as the number one priority!

What is positive reinforcement?

There are some misconceptions out there about what positive reinforcement is – some people see it as bribery, others think treats are limited just to tricks, and some think that praise or petting alone mean they’re training with positive reinforcement.

By definition, positive reinforcement is something that is added to your pets environment to increase a particular behaviour. It is a consequence that motivates your pet to do that again. Often the thing that we add is food, because all living things eat and so can be motivated by food, but we can also add a beloved toy, a game of tug, a belly rub or head scratch, or anything else your pet likes. That’s the key, it has to be something your pet likes.

dog chew reinforcementYou can tell whether or not what you’re doing is positively reinforcing to your pet, because if it is they will do that behaviour more often! If you give your dog a pat on the head whenever he sits, and he starts avoiding you when you cue a sit, then being petted is not reinforcing to your dog because the behaviour is decreasing. On the other hand you might offer your dog a treat each time he sits, causing him to sit more often. Now you have positively reinforced sitting!

People mistakenly think that positive reinforcement is the same as bribery, but it is very different. When you’ve been bribed, you can see your reward and are working with the knowledge you are about to get it. In training this would be luring, when you hold a treat or toy in front of your pet to get them to do something. The reward in positive reinforcement is unknown to your pet, but it knows through past training that usually you come up with something good!

The really cool thing is that through training, more and more things can become positively reinforcing to your pet because of great associations they’ve made with them in the past. Sometimes even the opportunity to respond to a certain cue can be motivating to your pet. It is this versatility that makes positive reinforcement so great – you might be empty handed, but that doesn’t have to mean you can’t reward a job well done!

Is your pet motivated?

Begging Dog

There are a range of factors that influence whether or not your pet will perform a behaviour when you ask, but a big one that is often overlooked is motivation. You’ve asked your pet to do something, now they’re wondering “what’s in it for me?”

Many people hold the belief that our pets, particularly our dogs, should do what we say “to please us”. There are a number of things wrong with this expectation, but in particular is the fact that animals don’t live by what’s right or wrong in the world but rather by what brings them good things and what causes bad things to happen. They repeat behaviours that bring them good outcomes, and avoid behaviours that lead to bad things happening.

Which brings us back to motivation. You’ve asked your dog to come, but he’s having a blast barking at dog on the other side of the fence. You’re empty handed, and you sound mad. What’s in it for him? Not much! He could stay at the fence having a blast, or he could come to you and get in trouble. He has no concept that it will please you if he comes on cue, he is just interested in how it affects his day.

There are a range of ways you can motivate your pet to work with you instead of ignoring you. Try using favourite treats, games, toys, attention, and praise during training. If you can teach him that listening to you leads to all his favourite things happening, then the stakes are in your favour next time you cue a behaviour. The more good history you build, the better the stakes get for you.

Next time your pet seems to blow you off when you ask him to do something, take a minute to think about what you’re offering him in return. Are you asking him to stop doing something he’s enjoying? Then you had better up your game!