The Most Important Dog Training Advice I Ever Got
Let me start by saying that my journey in dog training did not begin with positive reinforcement. I, like many dog owners, sought training help because I wanted my dog to stop doing stuff and our first trainer was more than happy to oblige. So I learned how to stop my puppy from nipping, and jumping, and chewing, and pulling on leash.
In the meantime, I diligently practiced his “obedience” skills but saw very little improvement in his overall behavior. He seemed mostly confused by our inconsistent and, dare I say, “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior. At best, corrections served as temporary interrupters. At worst, they caused him to withdraw and shut down. Mixing rewards with corrections tends to have that effect, but that’s a subject for another post.
It wasn’t until I started working with a positive reinforcement-based trainer and dove deeper into the science of behavior that I discovered a different approach, one that not only transformed my dog’s behavior but also changed how I view all relationships in my life.
This approach is most clearly outlined in Kathy Sdao’s phenomenal book Plenty in Life is Free. In her book, Kathy Sdao encourages us to “get SMART” with her “See, Mark, and Reward Training.” SMART helps us be proactive about our dogs’ training by seeing, marking, and rewarding behaviors we want to see more of.
She explains that “those three components—seeing good behavior, marking good behavior (often with a click or a ‘yes’) and rewarding good behavior—are the core competencies of successful trainers.”
In other words, if you want to see more good behaviors, you have to reinforce more good behaviors since the principles of operant conditioning tell us that all behaviors that are reinforced will increase and become stronger.
Put even more simply, when it comes to behavior, you get what you pay for. Literally.
Although this sounds simple enough, it requires a paradigm shift in how we think about and approach teaching our dogs.
Why? Because most of us don’t notice behaviors until they’ve become a problem. For instance, no one pays attention to a puppy quietly playing with his toy in the corner of the room until that toy becomes your favorite shoe and an exhilarating game of keep away ensues.
Similarly, we don’t see a dog standing next to us as doing much of anything, until she’s jumping up or mouthing. A dog who’s settled on a bed while we’re cooking doesn’t get our attention nearly as much as a dog who’s a hair away from a plate of roast chicken.
Our tendency to overlook good behaviors only to notice when things go wrong extends to many aspects of our lives, including our workplaces, schools, and families. We’re far more proficient at doling out corrections than rewards.
But there is another way, a way that can help us have far better, more rewarding, and more joyful relationships with our dogs while helping them become confident and well-adjusted companions.
So how do we make this shift? For starters, we have to operationalize what we mean by “good” behavior. What, exactly, does “good” behavior look like?
I would encourage you to think about your dog’s unwanted behaviors and decide what you would like them to do instead. Then, make a list of what these behaviors look like in measureable and observable terms. Remember, not jumping, not pulling, not barking, etc. are not measurable and observable behaviors; but eye contact, four paws on the floor, bum on the ground, belly on the mat, walking by your side, are!
The next step is to hone your observation skills and begin to capture these behaviors in action and reinforce them consistently and generously. Over and over again.
Kathy Sdao suggests putting aside 50 treats each day, some of which can include your dog’s daily meals, and using them to capture and reward all the behaviors you like that your dog does throughout the day.
That’s right, you will not ask, prompt, or otherwise cue your dog to do anything. You will simply observe them and when you see them engaging in the behaviors you like, you will mark and reward.
“The dog is responsible for making his own behavior happen. Our vital role is to notice more of those choices, inform the dog when he’s chosen correctly and reward the dog so he’ll be more likely to choose that way in the future,” Kathy Sdao tells us.
This approach cuts against the grain of the more traditional “obedience” mindset where humans command and dogs obey, but it gives us a unique opportunity to be proactive in our training by shaping the behaviors we want before problem behaviors occur.
“In SMART, the trainer isn’t ‘doing nothing’, but is instead allocating mental resources to the most critical activity of all: paying attention to what the dog is actually doing and thereby truly seeing behavior,” writes Sdao.
In fact, one of the main differences between a good trainer and everyone else is that a good trainer knows exactly what behavior they’re looking for and can spot it as it occurs. And I don’t just mean the final version of the behavior, but each and every small component and increment that gets us to the goal behavior.
SMART x50 protocol will help you become a keen observer and reinforcer of behaviors before your dog is able to make a “mistake.” Working to set them up for success by managing the environment so that unwanted behaviors aren’t practiced and desirable behaviors are easily achieved will help this process along even more.
Most importantly, you’ll be creating a thinking dog or a dog who makes choices and offers behaviors without being asked and is empowered to use their behavior to meet their needs in a way that also works for you. How cool is that?!
And finally, by consistently reinforcing behaviors we want more of, we are giving our dogs clear information about what works in their environment. After all, dogs don’t speak English and aren’t born pre-programmed knowing the rules of our world.
It’s our responsibility to humanely teach them what we want them to do, and there is no better way to achieve this than by providing clarity about which behaviors yield good outcomes and when.
This approach can be especially helpful with shy and fearful dogs as well as dogs who have a history of punishment-based training. Since punishment suppresses behavior, dogs who are frequently punished begin to see behavior as risky and tend to do less of everything. Allowing them to offer behaviors and earn reinforcement on their own is immensely empowering and helps build confidence.
After all, what we should all strive for in training our dogs isn’t to get our dogs to do less or to come up with more creative ways and tools to punish behavior, but to create happy, empowered, enthusiastic, and confident dogs who know exactly what to do to live successfully alongside us.