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Dogs need to Learn how to LEARN

Many times I see dogs that are trained well, they can complete the task on cue and are reasonably reliable, but when you attempt to train them a new exercise, they return a blank look?

Many people when training their dogs take on the responsibility of leading the dog through the exercise to reward, this works (clearly), but it doesn’t really teach the dog to learn or problem solve. This dog’s trainer has left no holes uncovered in the road to success and the dog has not at all had to think, but instead just follow the prompts and become rewarded. As time progresses the prompts become less and the dog just strings together a behaviour chain and runs this on cue and predicts / expects a reward.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing, but it does leave your dog without, what I call, the essential skill of learning how to learn. Without this skill dogs often become stressed, anxious or reactive as they are under pressure, whilst it’s often reward pressure, it is still pressure.

Something most of us have seen is a dog jumping up on its owner, this is often a behaviour that has been produced out of reward pressure, the owner has a reward the dog wants, attention. The dog isn’t getting it fast enough so under reward pressure will often become frustrated, elevating drive and jumping happens through experimentation.

I would say most dogs are taught to sit before they are habitual jumpers but under reward pressure, they were not able to use this learned behaviour (the sit) to get the attention they wanted, or they did use it but the owner missed it. This adds frustration through reward pressure so they actually bypassed a known behaviour because they could not manage to run the behaviour outside of the behaviour chain, meaning without the sit cue, they don’t recall the behaviour as they aren’t trying to solve a problem, rather just go straight for the reward. I believe it is essential to teach dogs how to learn, leave holes in the learning path that will cause the dog to stop and think how it can keep progressing forward to the reward, how the dog has a role that includes problem solving and how asking the dog to solve this problem lets us as trainers know how invested the dog is.

If you take a look at the fundamentals of my Triangle of Temptation program you will see that it is a program that teaches the dog how to problem solve, it teaches the dog to control itself in the face of a reward, under reward pressure and drive its attention in an alternate direction from the reward.

When training a dog to run a simple singular task, like sit, I may place and show, lure or shape the behaviour I want to teach, but I run by my rule of 5, which is “I will help you 5 times in a row then test you and see if you can do it without help”. If the dog fails to do it on the first attempt without help, I will help 5 more times and test again on time number 6. I think a big problem exists with many trainers and that is they do not fade the help fast enough, meaning the help, let’s say the lure, becomes part of the chain, often the cue for the behaviour. This in turn means when you don’t have the lure (perhaps food), the dog will not perform the task.

This in turn sees the trainer bring the lure back which of course returns the behaviour, but remember that you are only further reinforcing the need for the food by doing this.

Teaching a dog how to learn opens up a world of possibilities in training, it helps dogs develop self control and think through problems rather than just getting over stimulated and frustrated and acting out.

Try this!

Here is a simple exercise to teach your dog how to think, it is easy and fun and unless your dog has been trained like this before, will show you the thought process going on.

Grab yourself some food treats and kneel down in front of your dog at home, somewhere that you and your dog are both comfortable.
Next show your dog all the treats and give him one.

Now place one treat in one hand and let your dog see you do this, close that hand and extend your arm out to one side, luring your dog toward the hand with the food.

As your dog tries to get the food saying nothing but keep your hand tightly closed.

See how long it takes your dog to try something to get the food and what did your dog try?

Did he bark at your hand, paw at it, try and use his teeth to bite at your hands? Or did he sit or look at you for the answer?

If your dog has never done anything like this before, you will most likely have your dog trying to get the food from your hand physically.

Now, slowly move the hand so that it is in line between your dog, and your face.

Keep your hand closed and watch your dog, as soon as your dog makes eye contact with you say “YES!” and then open your hand allowing him to have the treat.

Reload your hand now and do the same again, see how fast your dog makes eye contact now?

Your dog has learned “how it works”. So has returned eye contact over being physical. This is an exercise of self control and it can be the start of teaching great focus on you from your dog.

Play around with this and gradually extend the amount of time your dog has to stare into your eyes to get the the yes marker and the food. Don’t add too much time each rep, just a few seconds at a time and make the whole training session only 2 – 3 minutes long for an adult dog, half that for a puppy.

Have a rest and start again where you left off 30 minutes later.

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