Believe it or not, the best dog trainers understand that to get the most success out of your dog training, you need to give your dog a sense of control. But what does this mean? How can I train my dog if they are in control? I thought dog training was about controlling my dog?
Dog training is not about controlling your dog’s behaviors but rather teaching your dog to make better decisions throughout their daily routine. Today we are going to talk about how to teach your dog that they can control what happens during their training sessions and how this can help make your training sessions more efficient and more effective.
Let’s talk about control for a minute…
When we are talking about having control, I like to use the analogy of a light switch and a light bulb. If you decide to flip the switch into the “ON” position, and the light bulb turns on, that means that you can control the light turning on. If you decide to switch the light into the “OFF” position, and the light turns off, you also control when the light turns off.
We want our dogs to know that there are simple things that they can do that can control what happens next. The process by which we teach our dogs this concept is by creating “expectations” for our dog. When we are teaching our dogs how to sit, we want to create an expectation that when their butt hits the ground that they can expect to receive a treat or reward of some kind.
Let’s pretend that there is an imaginary button on the ground and when the dog hits that button with their butt it causes their trainer to reward them. Just like how the light switch can trigger the light to turn on, that imaginary button on the ground “turns on” the reward. We can refer to this as producing a reward.
Once the dog realizes that his actions can control whether or not he will receive a reward, he is going to much more eager to perform the behavior or action that he knows with get him the treat. The dog should learn that his actions are what produce the reward! This concept is pretty simple to understand even among the most novice of trainers.
Now let’s get to the more difficult part…
Once the dog understands that his behaviors can control the production of a reward, we can also teach him that he can control other parts of training such as pressure and corrections. Let’s start with the concept of leash pressure and how the dog can learn to control it.
The reason to use leash pressure is to increase reliability that the dog will perform the desired behaviors regardless if they want a reward or not. What this means is that if your dog is normally happy to sit for a treat, but today he had a really big breakfast and he’s really full, he may not be very motivated to do what is needed to get that treat, especially if there is something else that is now far more interesting to him.
By applying leash pressure we can teach our dog another area of training where they can have control of what happens to them. When we teach the sit command, we like to apply slight upward leash pressure as we help our dog into the sit position. When the butt hits the ground the pressure immediately goes away. Again, we are talking about that imaginary button on the ground that now not only produces a treat but also makes the leash pressure go away at the same time.
With enough repetition our dog begins to understand that when he feels that leash pressure he can easily make it go away and get a treat at the same time just by putting his butt on the ground. Once the dog understands that he can perform a behavior to make leash pressure go away by sitting he begins to feel more in control of training yet again. (Learn more by checking out "Escape and Avoidance Conditioning")
Now the really hard part…
What separates the great dog trainers from the rest is their ability to constantly evaluate what is motivating the dog’s behavior and using those motivations to get the dog to do what they want. Once the dog learns that they can get exactly what they want by doing something specific it gives them even more of a sense of control.
A prime example of this concept is the act of a dog forging forward and pulling on the end of the leash. If we think about the motivation for the dog in this situation, the dog wants to go forward. It is a painfully simple idea right? But how can we use this to teach the dog to stop pulling on the leash.
Always remember the concept that the dog can only get what they want when they do what you want them to do. So, the pieces of the puzzle here are 1.) The dog wants to make forward progress, and 2.) I want the dog to walk by my side and not ahead of me.
If we put these together, we decide that the dog can make forward progress by walking next to me, but if he walks ahead of me I am going to take away the forward progress we may have already made.
One of the simplest things you can do if your dog is forging ahead of you in one direction is to turn around and walk the opposite direction. If your dog begins to walk ahead of you again, all you have to do is turn around again. Repeating this over and over again could make you dizzy, and after enough repetitions your dog will likely get the idea. You can also expedite the process by rewarding your dog in the moments between when you turn around and before your dog gets ahead of you again.
What is the dog learning? He learns that when he gets ahead of you, he causes you to turn around, and when he walks next to you he causes you to give him a treat. So if he really wants to make forward progress he will need to remain at your side because the moment he gets one step ahead of you, you’re just going to turn around.
Through this process you can teach your dog that he can control the forward progress by walking politely at your side and paying attention to you. He also learns that he can control when you change directions by walking ahead of you. So if he doesn’t want you to turn around again he better stay at your side. He can also control how many treats he gets by how much time he spends at your side. The more time he spends at your side, the more treats he gets.
Why I prefer this fundamental concept
During the early stages of training with any dog, I don’t like to use too much communication with the dog aside from rewarding when they are doing things I like, and depriving them of what is motivating them when they do things I don’t like.
When I am teaching heeling or loose leash walking, I don’t talk to the dog much and just walk around with no destination in mind. I repeat the process described above until the dog starts to figure out that walking with me instead of ahead of me can be extremely rewarding and much more enjoyable than pulling at the end of the leash. From this point we can start to work on more advanced tasks and training. But in these early stages are when you can really teach your dog that they can be in control of the consequences of their actions.
The most important thing that you need to remember to really teach your dog that they control their consequences is consistency on your part as a trainer. If my dog expects a reward every time he sits when I stop, I want to make sure I fulfill my end of the bargain every time (continuous reward cycle) by rewarding him every time. Through the use of leash pressure we can fade away from the use of treats as you progress through the higher levels of training and still maintain excellent reliability.
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