Training that never fails
Applying the simple concepts of how dogs learn gives us all the information that we need for foolproof training. While every dog is an individual, of course, every dog is still a dog. There are basic principles that will always hold true.
Three keys to Training
Every failure in dog training comes down to a failure on the part of the trainer in one of three key areas:
The consequence that your dog experiences for doing or not doing what you ask must be meaningful as proven to you by your dog's desire to repeat or avoid that response in the future. We are either building "ignition" or "inhibition" at all times. These things must be tangible until the dog has formed a habit.
In order for your dog to connect their action to a consequence, the consequence must (at least initially) happen at the same time, or immediately after their action. Because it's sometimes difficult to time consequences that well, we use "markers" or words/sounds that can we can time more perfectly.
In order for your dog to be able to recognize the pattern between their actions and the consequences of those actions, the pattern must be consistent. Predictable outcomes create predictable behavior. Inconsistent outcomes create inconsistent behavior, and confusion.
Rules for creating behavior
- Be very specific about what you want.
- Your dog has to do "it" before you can name "it".
- Name it only when you would be willing to bet money that it will happen.
- Reward your dog for doing it when you ask, and use motivational force if they won't do it voluntarily.
Rules for stopping Behavior
- There must be an intolerable consequence.
- The behavior that needs to stop must be immediately identified.
- The consequence must be inescapable.
- The consequence must be inevitable.
A house built on a poor foundation will fall. Your dog has to prove to you that they understand something before you can ask more from them. This is not an excuse to get complacent, but a caution to be honest and show some humility instead of being impatient at the expense of your dog.
There is a point where our dogs go from thinking to reacting, or from willing to do what we ask to being taken over by desire to do something else. The line between the two is what we call "threshold". When working on our training it is our duty to keep the dog at or below threshold, only increasing the difficulty as they prove they are able to handle it.
When working to build reliability into trained behaviors around distractions we have the option to change three dimensions to keep our dog under threshold:
Move further away from the distraction. Or in the case of working your dog at a distance from you, close the distance between you and your dog.
Decrease the amount of time you expose your dog to the distraction.
Degree of Difficulty
Decrease the intensity of the distraction.
Failure is an important part of learning for your dog. They have to experience contrast between the outcomes of desirable and undesirable behavior. But try to keep it positive. We are generally looking to follow an 80/20 rule. If your dog is right 80% of the time or more, you should increase the difficulty by 20%. If they get it right less than 80% of the time, you should decrease the difficulty by 20%.
Accept what you can't change
There are some things that you can't change. Particularly instinctual and genetically inherited behaviors may be improved, but may not be able to be changed greatly or gotten rid of completely. The time to investigate breeds, and specific individual dogs has passed if you're here. There are some things that make a lab a lab, a pit bull a pit bull, and a shepherd a shepherd. So know that some times (though less often than you might think) some things are just part of who your dog is.
Use it or lose it
Just because your dog knows how to do something, or knows not to do something, doesn't mean they will always behave appropriately. You have to regularly require them to use learned skills, and remind them of things they are not allowed to do. This should be considered "regular maintenance", no different than having to put gas in your car, put air in the tires, and change the oil from time to time. The stronger your foundation, the less maintenance you'll need. If you never really taught your dog using the three keys (discussed at the top of this page) you'll find yourself doing far more maintenance and management.
If at any point you find that something is not working as you expected, go back to the foundation and to these rules. I can guarantee you that it is a failure to follow one of them that is causing the problem.