When Training Isn’t Really Training

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When Training Isn’t Really Training

When Training Isn’t Really Training

Most people think of training as teaching a dog to perform a behavior on command or cue. For example, teaching a dog to sit when given a “sit” cue.  This is definitely one aspect of training and can be hugely beneficial and fun, especially when training complex behaviors or silly tricks!  There is, however, another aspect to training which is most often lumped into the category of behavior modification. Behavior modification can mean changing an existing behavior that is inappropriate, but more often than not, it actually includes changing an emotional state that leads to inappropriate behavior.  In this case the observable acts are actually a reaction to an internal state often caused by a stimulus in the environment.

For example, a dog pulls and towards and barks at another dog while on leash (classic signs of leash reactivity) and the owner wishes to change this behavior.  The actions of the dog (pulling and barking) are caused by stress or tension caused by the stimulus of another dog leading to a negative internal state.  In order to modify these actions, we actually have to change the dog’s internal state or their emotional response so that they can behave differently in the future when exposed to the same stimulus (another dog).

Training in this type of situation is quite different than attaching a cue to a behavior (like “sit” or “down”). In this case, we actually have to start from way below baseline and work our way up to neutral and potentially even a positive reaction to the stimulus.  Many trainers refer to this as conditioning an emotional response.  You can, in fact, condition emotions such as pleasure and fear. Scientists have proved this for years using rats, monkeys, dogs, and even children.

Essentially, the brain is being trained through repetitive exposure to associate stimuli with positive or negative emotions the same way Pavlov classically conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell through repeated exposure to the bell followed by food. In the case of leash reactivity, the sight of a dog is associated with fear or stress and leads to a defensive response (barking and pulling), much the same way the sound of the bell led to salivation.

What training seeks to do is to change the emotional response of the dog by exposing them slowly to aspects of their fearful stimuli (another dog) and associating it with something pleasurable (food and increased distance) until the stimuli no longer triggers a fearful or reactive response.  To many people, this often looks like the dog is being rewarded for nothing because no cues or command are given and often the dog is simply standing and looking around. When in fact, they are being rewarded for lack of negative reaction so that they can eventually react positively.  It can be confusing at first, but once you start thinking about training an emotional state as opposed to training a specific behavior, you can start to get the idea of this type of behavior modification.

While this is most obvious in the case of leash reactivity, the same is true of many behavior concerns people have.  Another common behavior modification routine is for dogs who resource guard objects or places. These dogs need to be taught to enjoy having people approach them when in possession of a high value resource, which involves conditioning their emotions rather than teaching a response to a cue or command.  There are many instances in which training and behavior modification can improve a dog’s quality of life.  While being obedient can give a dog more freedom in many ways (well behaved dogs are welcome in more places and statistically go one more walks, etc.), being more comfortable in everyday situations, such as walking past other dogs or accepting a friendly stranger, can also vastly improve the quality of life for a shy or reactive dog. Being stressed or uncomfortable in common situations is unpleasant; so why not help your dog learn to be comfortable if it is not innate for them?

Just this week, a potential client let us know that she did not in fact need training for her dog. She didn’t care about any of that, she just wanted her dog to be nicer to people and dogs.  This is one area where I think many people are confused. You may not care about strict obedience, but if your dog is uncomfortable in some situations or is acting inappropriate in some way, training can address those specific issues independently of pure “obedience.” If your dog is concerned or acting out in the presence of people or dogs or in any other situation, there is a very good chance that they have developed a poor association with people or dogs and training can help them feel more comfortable so that they do not need to react poorly.  These are the cases where training can be most beneficial. If a dog does not immediately sit on the first cue, it can be frustrating, but it likely is not making your dog uncomfortable or stressed.

Keep in mind that training does not always look like training, especially when behavior modification is involved.

Happy Training!

Tamar Paltin
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator