The dangers of doing nothing

One of the most common phone calls we get is from owners with an adolescent or young adult pets who are misbehaving. Upon further enquiry the misbehaviour has been going on for months, sometimes even longer. So why is the behaviour suddenly annoying enough to call for help, and why does it take so long?

Speaking with owners, we have found that many people hold the belief that pets go through naughty phases which they will grow out of. With this belief in mind, most people live through the frustration of a naughty puppy, kitten, or parrot, then transition into the crazy teenage age, complain about their “hormonal” pet, and then finally reach the conclusion that nothing has changed and they can’t put up with it anymore.

While it is true that our pets do change as they grow up, we are still always in a position to be able to positively influence their behaviour. We need to get out of the habit of waiting for something to become a problem and then reacting, and into the habit of knowing how we do want our pets to behave and taking a proactive approach to help them reach those behavioural goals.

naughty puppy

We always remind people that if you do nothing, nothing will change. If your puppy is chasing your pant legs as you walk it may be “just a puppy thing”, but you can teach your puppy to move beside you, carry a toy, or sit for attention rather than waiting to have a 7 month old dog heeling you as you walk. Your biting budgie may be “hormonal”, but teaching her to station or step onto a perch will save your finger and maintain your relationship much better than keeping her cage-bound hoping she will grow out of it.

One look at any shelter or rescue website is enough to make you realise that they are full to the brim of young animals that didn’t “grow out of it”. Be proactive in helping your pet to succeed as a member of your family, and train smart, not tough!


Just doing it for the food

Some people really get their knickers in a twist about using food when training animals, as though it is somehow cheating or insulting that their pet will work for food. We want to show people how to use food to motivate their pets in training, without bribing their pets or feeling like their pet is only in it for the food.

I like to think of a treat in training like my paycheck. If i didn’t get my paycheck each week i feel fairly certain the standard of my work would decline. Does that mean i’m only working for the money? Nope! I love working with great people, meeting awesome animals, and doing what I love. I also volunteer some of my time to helping local animal organisations, which i enjoy for the experience and warm fuzzies. I’m not working just for the money, but money is motivating for people. Food is motivating for animals!

When we teach our pets something new, we often start off with a treat visible. Our pet can see what’s on offer, and by the position of the treat we can help our pet do the right thing. When the treat is visible like that, we call it a lure (or a bribe). Lures can be really useful early on in training, but if you don’t fade them quickly you will end up with a pet who only responds when he can see what’s on offer.

dog training

That’s why I show people how to keep their treats hidden, and how to use either a clicker or a word to tell their pets they have done the right thing. The pet doesn’t know what treats are on offer, but through training experience we can teach them that listening to us pays off. As your pet gets the hang of a new behaviour, you can start to vary the rate at which you offer the treats. You become a random treat dispenser, and your pet will keep responding in the hope that this time it pays off!

By using treats to motivate your pet during training, you are proving that you are the source of great things, and that, by responding to you, your pet can gain access to things that he likes. Just like i enjoy the people, animals, and work that i do, your pet will enjoy the game of training and the time spent with you. By making training motivating and fun, your pet will genuinely look for ways to engage in training games with you. Training through positive reinforcement strengthens the human-animal bond.

Keep it quick

You’re standing there with your pet in front of you, bridge (clicker or other) at the ready, and a pouch full of tasty treats. You’re shaping your pet along the path towards a fun new trick or useful behaviour. You get a great response! It’s such an exciting, and sometimes even adrenaline pumping, experience. So then you ask for just one more repetition…..

too much training


Can anyone else relate to this common training mishap? If you’ve been there before you probably know that the next response is hardly ever as awesome as the one before, and then you’re chasing an ok response to end the session on a good note. It’s one of those situations that is easy to look at critically in hindsight.

So what can you do to keep training sessions short and snappy, so that you’re leaving your pet on a high note rather than scrabbling for a so-so one?

You could set a timer, when it dings you stop. If you’ve worked with your pet before, then you’ll be able to pick a time that you know your pet can focus for the full duration. If you have any doubts, set the time really short. Just enough for a few repetitions.

I’m often suggesting people keep some treats handy so they can have a speedy training session in the ad breaks of their favourite tv shows. This will limit each session to 1-2 minutes, and will mean both trainer and pet can stay focused.

Another option is to train for just a set number of treats. You might get 5 pieces of hot dogs, and when you run out that is the end of that session. If you physically run out of rewards, then you will make yourself stop, rather than trying for one more sneaky rep.

Most importantly, go into every session with a clear picture of what you are trying to teach. Know the steps you will take to get there, not just this session but all the way to completion. That way, if your pet jumps 10 steps ahead, you can keep training seamlessly. Also think how you can break each step down further, so that if your pet gets stuck you can make it easier to succeed.

Training should be fun for both you and your pet! By keeping sessions nice and quick you are ensuring that you are both bringing your full attention to the game, and ending before the game gets old. There’s no reason to drill your pet through his training. Train smart, not tough!

Force-free is “fad-free”

Here’s a newsflash, force-free training has been used with great success for DECADES. In the world of animal training there are always “fads” that come and go with popular culture. People jump on the bandwagon and ride it till it crashes. But not force-free training.

Force-free training refers to the scientifically-based training principles of applied behaviour analysis, changing behaviour through classical and operant conditioning. Force-free training particularly focuses on changing behaviour through the method that is least invasive, and minimally aversive (meaning least unpleasant to the animal). This could mean managing the environment in a way that makes the problem less likely to occur, medical management, conditioning a new response to a negative stimulus, or training new behaviours through positive reinforcement. Force-free trainers understand how to apply other methods, but with all the kinder options available feel that it is not in the interest of the animals welfare to use them routinely.

Force-free training using operant conditioning was explored by the Brelands in the 1950s, and shortly after it became popular with marine mammal trainers in zoos. They would train dolphins to perform spectacular behaviours by using a training tool called a “bridge” (a clicker or whistle) to mark behaviours they liked and then rewarding the dolphins with fish. Once a behaviour has been caught, it can be shaped into the final goal.

dog training begging positive reinforcementThrough the 70s, 80s, and beyond, and woman named Karen Pryor began to apply the principles she learned as a dolphin trainer to dogs and horses. And so it all began! Karen Pryor puts my thoughts into words perfectly in the following statement:

“We have been training animals for thousands of years, and we almost never ask them to DO something! To bring their own abilities to the table. To think. If you’ll excuse the expression.”

Read the rest of Karen Pryor’s History of Clicker Training here.

Gone are the days where we need to rely on punishment-based training methods to stop our pets behaving in certain ways. We know better now, and the information on how to start is freely available online. No excuses, let’s start teaching!