I was watching a dog training video yesterday. The dog being trained was a bright, determined German shepherd. Focused and driven, she performed “sits” and “downs” for the trainer again and again. If she made an error and did not receive her treat, she might give a bark of frustration, but then immediately persevered, offering other behaviors until she earned her reward.
My dog isn’t like that, I thought.
It’s easy to see why dogs like border collies and shepherds are popular with dog trainers around the globe. Eager to work and full of drive, they are fast and fun to work with. I enjoy watching these dog trainers work with their dogs, and I do learn from the videos they publish.
However, where does that leave those of us who have dogs who are not like the dogs in the video?
The dogs who become frustrated after several “wrong” answers and may begin barking, mouthing, or otherwise mischievous if they feel they have not earned their reward?
The dogs who are not persistent and easily shut down if they do not earn their reward after a few tries?
The dogs who are easily distracted and would rather wander off and sniff than take part in an intense training session?
Read on, skeptical dog owner…
I GIVE UP
Unlike the dogs in the video, my own dog, Ada, will frequently “give up” if she does not figure out a puzzle or training task in several tries. I can actually see her getting frustrated. She will sometimes do a tongue flick (a stress sign), and settle into a down (her default behavior she has been heavily reinforced for many times). If I continue, she will stop offering behaviors entirely and just lay there.
What I quickly learned is that dogs like Ada need tasks broken into smaller steps where they can feel successful. As a school teacher, I learned that it was not best practice to assign kids a massive project with one giant due date at the end where they turned in an assignment worth 100% of the points. Instead, it was viewed as best practice to assign a series of small check-ins and due dates that added up to the finished product at the end. It was less overwhelming for kids, allowed for more feedback, and helped them be more successful.
Training dogs with confidence issues is similar. I break tasks down into many smaller steps so that Ada can feel like a champion when she accomplishes one. I also give her a lot of verbal encouragement and praise for her attempts, even if she doesn’t quite have it yet. Ada has a phrase, “Keep going!” which means, “Keep doing what you’re doing, you’ve almost earned your treat!” Ada is much more likely to keep working and offering different behaviors when she hears this encouragement. It’s like I’m her coach on the sidelines, cheering for her to keep going during a marathon instead of giving up.
Finally, another useful tip for building confidence is: make some trials easier. When you’re training a behavior, don’t make each trial get harder, and harder, and harder, as this can build stress on your learner until they inevitably fail, and get discouraged. Instead, hop back to an “easier” level every so often, and end with a few easy trials. Your dog will gain confidence, and you will get the training results you are looking for!
Some dogs shut down when they feel unsuccessful; other dogs throw a temper tantrum. I have seen dogs whine, bark, pace, paw, stamp their feet, and do all kinds of behaviors if they feel confused and are frustrated. On a more extreme end of the spectrum, some dogs can actually become jumpy and mouthy to the point that it is unsafe should they become frustrated. This isn’t good for the learner or the trainer.
Fortunately, the answer for these dogs is similar to the timid learners in the last section: break the exercise into smaller, more manageable steps so that the dog does not become frustrated. Throw in easier trials after a few “difficult” ones.
Many dogs who fit this profile may also benefit from calm markers and calm treat delivery to avoid increasing their arousal levels. Other steps to reduce stress should be taken as well to minimize frustration and arousal. Depending on the dog, DAP collars or spray, Thundershirts, or supplements obtained from a veterinarian may be appropriate. Trainers should keep an eye on the dog’s arousal and frustration levels, interspersing breaks, relaxation, or easier trials before the dog goes over threshold and shows problematic behaviors during the training session.
Dogs who show a lot of frustration behaviors may benefit from impulse control exercises in addition to whatever other training you are working on. Examples of impulse control exercises include “It’s Yer Choice,” Stay, Wait, and Leave It. In addition, getting the dog into the habit of offering a behavior to earn reinforcers (like their dinner, access to the yard, etc.) is a great idea. Just like polite kids say “Please” to get something they like, polite dogs can learn to sit or lay down to earn access to a desired person, place, or thing.
Here’s something that may surprise you: most dogs that I see come to my class that act distracted actually are not distracted.
I’ll repeat that: most dogs who come to my class and act distracted…actually aren’t distracted.
Usually, they are stressed or frustrated. And they disconnect from their owner and begin sniffing around, looking for interesting things to do elsewhere in the environment, or otherwise getting into mischief as a coping mechanism.
What causes stress in these dogs? Sometimes it is the environment itself, if they are in a class full of other dogs. When the dog’s owner tells me, “He does this exercise great at home, but he won’t do it here,” then I know this is likely the case. We may cut down on distractions by setting up a wall that obscures some of the other dogs from view, or move their station away from other dogs to help that dog relax. If this happens outside the classroom, training in a less distracting place (such as your backyard instead of a park with screaming children, at least to start with) can help.
Sometimes dogs become stressed because something is “off” with the mechanics of training. For instance, if the communication to the dog has been unclear repeatedly, some dogs become frustrated and begin to “check out” from the owner Or, perhaps the dog completed a behavior, but it is taking an extremely long time for them to be rewarded. This can also cause frustration.
Effective training involves clearly setting criteria (what your goals are/where you are setting the bar), clear communication (a system that lets the dog know what they did right, and when), and an appropriate rate of reinforcement (if the treats are coming too slowly, that’s frustrating). Any one of these factors being off can derail a training relationship.
This is why, even though there are a lot of training videos on the web, it’s still smart to do at LEAST one training session with an actual trainer (plan on doing more if your dog has a more complex behavior problem, like reactivity or aggression). A trainer is not simply there to tell you how to do the training like a YouTube video: they are also your coach, helping you improve your training mechanics and become a more effective trainer for your dog. You’ll get better results, and your dog will appreciate it!
In the end, sometimes a distracted dog just needs a less distracting environment or better treats. After more work with their owner and attention exercises, these pups would then be ready to work in gradually more challenging environments. However, don’t simply chalk it up to the dog being easily distracted and leave it at that: sometimes the story is more complex.
In summary, even though our pet dogs may be less focused than a border collie or less driven than a German shepherd, we can still learn some great tips from dog training videos. I think the most important takeaway is to not assume that all dogs are the same, and don’t think that there is something wrong with your dog if he does not behave in the same way as the dog in the video. It’s OK and normal to need to adapt lesson plans for your own dog!
While there are some great dog trainers on the web (Emily Larlham of Dog Training by Kikopup is my all-time favorite), there are also trainers out there giving ineffective or even harmful advice. In addition, even if you are watching a great trainer, it takes good execution of these skills to get the same results. You should consider working with a qualified trainer, at least to get started, to make sure your training mechanics are up to snuff. A good trainer can also help connect you to resources so that you can ensure that advice that you are looking at is factually accurate and safe for your dog.
Until next time, happy training!
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