This weekend brought a big milestone at our house. Tonks and I took and passed our evaluation to become a registered Pet Partners team through the Delta Society! Passing was a big deal, not only because it brought the fulfillment of one of my “wishes” from before we got Tonks, but also because we failed the evaluation the first time. Going through the whole training process to become Pet Partners really highlighted several of the things I’ve learned about dog training:
1. Use positive reinforcement. Tonks and I had to drive about 45 minutes to get to training. Though she wears a seat belt in the car, she was not particularly good at sitting down the whole time, since the view outside the windows is SO EXCITING. After realizing on the way to our original evaluation (to get into the class) that if she moved around too much, she’d tangle herself up, I got to work training her to sit down. How, you ask? LOTS OF TREATS. Tonks is highly food motivated, so every time we got in the car for a short trip, I fed her treats constantly the second she laid down and stopped immediately if she got up (Hubs was driving on these trips). Within two short (<10 minute) trips and without giving her any cues or commands, I ended up with a dog that lays down almost immediately upon getting in the car and stays that way until we reach our destination. We no longer give treats in the car either; all it took was 20 minutes of getting treats while doing something and it’s her favorite thing to do.
2. Combined with positive reinforcement is the use of negative punishment. Tonks learned that when she stood up in the car, she quit getting treats. The removal of a reward (food, attention, playtime) is highly effective to extinguish undesirable behaviors. Tonks also realized in the course of our training that if she paws me while we’re cuddling on the floor, I stop cuddling, so she no longer paws (good for a large-clawed therapy dog)!
3. Pay attention to your dog! Therapy work is about supporting your dog as she provides therapy to the client. You must, therefore, be totally tuned into what your dog needs and how she is feeling at all times. This principle also works for training. Most of the time, your dog will give you signals about her stress and energy levels. When Tonks doesn’t respond to a command that I give her, it is usually for one of three reasons: she doesn’t understand what I want, she is distracted, or she’s unmotivated due to boredom or lack of good treats. She (and most dogs, I think) absolutely wants to do what I want the majority of the time. She wants me to be happy with her, praise her, pet her, and give her treats. Working from this assumption, it’s possible for her to be the most obedient and sweetest doggie she can be by me tuning into her needs.
4. Don’t give up. Training with your dog can be hard and frustrating. When we first got Tonks, she was NOT GOOD at walking on the leash. She pulled so much against her collar that I worried she would choke herself. Once we got help from an awesome trainer on positively reinforcing Tonks when she walked next to us and also advice on using an Easy Walk Harness, walks became fun for everyone.
What each of these things have in common is that it’s often more about you than the dog (or other animal) you’re trying to train. If you positively reinforce unwanted behaviors or don’t use an adequately motivating reward for desired behaviors, you’ll see huge progress in your dog by merely changing these aspects of your interactions. Likewise, if you don’t read the signs you’re dog is trying to give you that she’s confused or tired and give up on the session without realizing the role you play, you won’t have nearly as much success as if you were tuned into your dog’s needs. When we failed our test, I knew it was because I didn’t pay enough attention to Tonks. During our second try I watched her like a hawk, and we passed! So basically, it’s about me and Tonks and us as a team (a new Pet Partners team)!
If you’re trying to train an animal and would like more information, check out Sophia Yin and Patricia McConnell, both of whom have great websites and blogs about [mostly] positive reinforcement training.