Dog Training 101: The Fundamentals
Understanding the theory behind how we train our dogs can greatly influence choices we make in training. While learning this can be a bit dry and technical, but it’s well worth dedicating some time to understand the process in deciding on what training techniques to use for you and your dog.
Operant Conditioning (The Four Quadrants)
This is how we encourage our dogs to increase or decrease behaviour, by creating a consequence for their actions.
In the dog training world, “Reinforcement and Punishment”, “Positive and Negative” have the following meanings:
Reinforcement (R): To Increase Behaviour
Punishment (P): To Decrease Behaviour
Positive (+): To Add
Negative (-): To Remove
Confused yet? Here’s how the four quadrants look when put together.
Understanding these four quadrants are very useful when we are actively teaching our dogs. For example, we should use a lot of positive reinforcement when teaching our dogs a new trick.
However, these quadrants can also come in to play inadvertently. For example, if your dog pulls on the lead to smell a pole and you allow her to get there, she has rewarded herself for pulling and this behaviour will increase every time she pulls. Similarly, if you push your dog off you when she jumps (rather than turning away and ignoring her), you have given her the reward of attention which will cause her to repeat the behaviour.
Classical Conditioning (Context and timing)
How your dog feels is extremely important in training as well. A good trainer will understand dog body language and temperament when providing training advice. With an understanding of the context of the behaviour, the trainer will then find a solution that suits that dog’s needs.
For example, a basic command like sit can be taught either using R+ (luring the dog into position with treats) or R- (placing pressure on the dog’s bottom until the dog sits). In both cases, the intended result will be that the dog will sit, but out of the two, R+ will be a more enjoyable experience. This is not to say that some dogs may need the guidance of the hand on the backside (wiggly puppies will sometimes need extra guidance) but in this case it is important to try and make the experience as enjoyable as possible e.g by rewarding once the dog is in position.
While teaching basic commands is a simple example, things become lot more complex when it comes to working with dogs with behavioural issues. For example, the training approach to barking will vary considerably depending on whether the barking stems from self-reward or from fear and anxiety. A proper assessment is integral in this case as a misdiagnosis could lead to increasing the behaviour rather than decreasing. Even worse, P+ on an anxious or fearful dog could lead to escalation of reactivity or complete shut down.
Dogs live in the moment. It is important to have precise timing to ensure your dog has a clear link between the behaviour and the consequence. A common example used is the process of toilet training puppies. If you catch them in the act, you are able to take them outside to complete their business. You are also able to reward them in the moment that they go outside. However, the puppy will not understand if you scold them even a minute after they have had an accident inside. Being live-in-the-moment creatures, they will just as well assume that you are scolding them for what they are doing at the time (imagine if they were sitting calmly while you were scolding them – how would that affect their training?)
Timing is also extremely important when creating feelings around stimuli such as noises, people, objects and other dogs. For example, if you accidentally drop something noisy on the ground just as your dog is walking through the door, they may create an association between walking through the door and scary noise. You may then need to counter-condition the dog (using R+) so she builds a new association of the doorway. Timing is something to be particularly mindful of if you are using P+ or R- methods, as there is a greater likelihood that the dog will accidentally associate a stimuli negatively.
All dogs are complex individuals that will require their own unique approach when training. Some self-assured dogs will require and tolerate measured and appropriate P+ and R- as part of their training. However, many dogs will respond well to R+ and P- methods, which have a much greater chance of encouraging learning, enthusiasm and confidence. Hopefully this understanding of the fundamentals will help you with your training. Now that you have got through the dry essentials, go and HAVE FUN training your dog!
Your Family Dog Trainer
At Pawtastic Dog Training, we understand that every dog is different and are passionate about delivering services that are tailored to your needs. Located on the Bellarine Peninsula, servicing Point Lonsdale, Ocean Grove, Geelong, and surrounds, we believe in building a strong relationship between you and your dog. Give us a call on 040 638 9506 and find out how we can help you.