Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dogs don't fail: some simple lessons about dog training that might save lives

Good training means being aware of cues and reinforcers and thinking about how the world looks from the animal's point of view.
I attended the Working Dog Alliance inaugural Australian Working Dog Conference this week - the turnout was sensational which bodes well and gives you an idea just how much those who work with dogs are keen to ensure that they keep up with best practice.

The keynote speaker was Steve White, founder of Proactive K9 and the only person to have served as a handler, trainer and supervisor for the Seattle Police Canine Unit. He has been training dogs since 1975.

The most powerful lesson for me was that while the prospect of training a dog can seem overwhelming, the basics are simple. The consequences are profound.

White identified responding to recall/name, loose leash walking (walking on a lead without pulling) and one stationary behaviour (sitting, staying) as three essential qualities that allow dogs to meet our expectations of "good behaviour".

"If you have those three things most dogs won't get euthanased" [for behaviour problems].

Its true. Dogs that don't do these things are often identified by owners as "problem dogs". Those dogs are more likely to be surrendered, or they may not enjoy an ideal bond with their owner. The sad thing is that we're not all good at communicating to dogs what it is that we expect of them in a way they understand. Given that the consequences can be so dire for them it seems incredibly unfair.

White made the point that behaviour problems are not the result of failure on the dog's part.

"When we have an expectation, give cues and then get a behaviour we don't expect," he said, "it gives us information about a gap in our training plan and where the animal is prepared to go."

In a world where the number one cause of death in young dogs is "euthanasia" due to behaviour problems, it is refreshing to hear one of the world's most experience trainers reveal that usually the problem is the expectations at the other end of the leash - on the part of the human.

"Dogs do not fail – they perform as trained," he said. "Dogs “fail” when we ask them to perform that for which we have not adequately prepared them".

Part of his job as a trainer is to help owners understand the way an animal is perceiving a given situation - and to meet the animal at its own level - "not drag it kicking and screaming to where they think it should be."

He identified several pitfalls in dog training, including:
  • Focusing on the problem (for example, jumping up). We really need to reverse the problem and focus on skill-building. For example, a skill might be an incompatible behaviour, such as sitting or standing.
  • Starting from the wrong baseline, i.e. assuming the dog "knows better".
  • Going too fast or too slow: White argues that making haste comes at a price ("big leaps in training create gaps you will need to patch up later on").
  • Cuing and reinforcing errors.
It is easy to inadvertently reinforce undesirable behaviours - we just have to be aware about cues, triggers and reinforcers that dogs may be responding to. Trainers should be asking what are the antecedents, the stimuli in the environment associated with a behaviour. What exacerbates it? What disrupts it? White disagrees with the brief that unwanted behaviour will be extinguished if ignored long enough.

He argued that such behaviour would likely continue due to reinforcement that owners may not be aware of.

Often we aren't even aware of these (White is a big fan of using video as it may reveal what is not seen at the time). Identifying what the dog did well is important as this can be used to shape behaviour and manage expectations.

This weekend, White is giving a two-day workshop at the Australian Canine Sports & Training Centre