Ah, Too Bad And Other Lesson From The World Of Training

One of the fun things about living with more than one dog is that you get to experience their different personalities (or should I say dognalities) and in some way experience life from their unique perspective.

In my case, my dogs could not be more different.  Rio, now fully recovered from 3 months of very little mobility, is back in the full swing of things.  With that, her bigger-than-life attitude has come full force and I love it!  Yes, I love almost everything about this girl.  I owe to her many times of laughter and her reminder of the finer things in life.

One of her signature behaviors that frankly we are not so crazy about is her now set in routine of dashing out the front door (we are lucky as our place is fenced in so no worries about traffic) while exuding a sharp series of barks that I am sure my not so close neighbor would rather do without.  On top of this obnoxious yet benign behavior, is the one that follows which is the one we want to exclude from her repertoire.  Once she is out the front door and has let everyone know so, she proceeds to approach Deuce and pecks him on his face or pulls on one of his ears as in: let’s go NOW!  Let’s go and look for bunnies, harass Jack (the neighbor’s dog), or whatever goes inside her doggy brain.  Poor Deuce just takes it. Often he hesitates to come out the front door – not good.  At times, he stands still – like a brother just putting up with the antics of a younger sister. On occasion he too takes off full speed in search of an adventure.

I am a firm believer in interceding for dogs. Especially if I think one of the dogs is getting the short end of the stick as with Deuce in this instance.   I will intercede in stopping Rio from lunging and pecking Deuce when she wants him to come along. But how to go about it?  Of course, they are a myriad of ways one can tackle benign, yet unwanted behaviors such as this one. I am now armed with a plan that we began to implement while Rio was still under close watch and had to go outside on a leash.

The training went like this:  We open the front door knowing that Rio will bark and then turn around looking for Deuce. Just after she emitted the strong bark, I said “ah, too bad” which is a now a familiar term to them; a non-reward marker (NRM). A non-reward marker teaches the dog that they just lost the opportunity for a reinforcer.  In this case, of course, the reinforcer is going outside.

We proceed immediately after the NRM with bringing Rio back inside and we wait there for a couple of seconds before inviting her to try again. If she chooses to go out quietly and without orienting by looking for Deuce, she gets to proceed. If she fails and either barks or worse orients towards Deuce, I repeat the procedure.

I don’t refer to Rio as my “one-trial” dog for nothing. This girl learns fast!  It does not take but a few repetitions for her to understand the consequences of her behavior and she is now on the game.

After a few days, Rio is now clear to romp off-leash.  With absolute glee, I open the front door and to her surprise she is no longer wearing the harness that has been on her every day for the past 12 weeks, but she is not on leash either.  She takes off in high spirits only to have me go back to our simple training plan for unruly behavior.

She complies coming inside and it only takes her 4 trials before I see her running out full speed this time without looking to harass Deuce or waking up the neighborhood.

You see folks, often you think that it is the cue (or a “command” as it is also known”) that drives behavior but this could not be farther from the truth.  It is consequences for behavior that molds future behavior.

Consequences must then be given for desired as well as undesired behaviors. They need to be timely. This is why scolding a dog hours after eliminating on the carpet is not only really unfair but it does not get the job done either.  The dog cannot link “this” behavior to the consequence given even seconds later.

Consequences then must be immediate.  In addition, consequences must be consistent.  If I had been willy-nilly in returning Rio back inside after her “infraction” this would, believe it or not, make the behaviors stronger -more resistant to change because now they are in a very thin schedule of reinforcement.  In plain English:  since only on occasion they are being curtailed they become stronger responses.  And, this folks, is one of those laws of learning that can truly serve us well if we understand it and more importantly if we implement it.

This is exactly why people bet money in casinos.  Perhaps the possibility of a future “win” is what keeps people (and dogs, and cats and frankly all sentient beings) engaging in the behavior again.  It is also possible that the response goes up in frequency due to some level of frustration that keeps us coming back to repeating the behavior.

What I love about using timely and consistent consequences are that it also helps the dog in understanding what other alternatives are acceptable or desired.  When we are consistent in applying consequences, the dog learns alternatives that will be reinforced and then… we can all move on to chasing rabbits, barking at our friend Jack and some of us can return to the cup of now-not-so-warm coffee left behind at the kitchen table.