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Training dogs to be resilient

Stress Management
Stress Management

Positive vs balanced dog training is a troubled topic, usually causing all dog trainers in a room to agree that some dog trainer not present is doing it wrong. But worse than that are the fights that break out within the room over nothing more than semantics. I have a solution, right after I make things worse. The solution is Resilience.

Here is the vocabulary you need to face the argument.

  • Aversive: anything you think your dog doesn't like. It doesn't matter if your dog actually hates it. It only matters if you think he should. This is especially applicable to dogs you've just met or don't even know in online discussions.
  • Positive reinforcement: things that make your dog do stuff. It doesn't matter if the stuff he does is on cue or even what you want him to do. Just matters if your dog goes on red alert when crinkle the bag or pop the new can of tennis balls.
  • Training collars: torture devices that should be banned by the governments of all nations. People who use them or even study them should be charged with felony animal cruelty and put in jail for life.
  • Error Proof Learning: a method of training by which a human sets up a task so that there is no way for a dog to leave the room or fail to bump into the behavior and execute it perfectly, for which the dog earns a fantastic reward--for being brilliant.

So, the list may indicate a slight bias on my part but it's not the bias might think it is. Positive reinforcement (R+) for behavior you want is scientifically proven to be the best way to train a dog to by willing to try new things and motivated to work. Somehow, we've taken this great knowledge, boiled it down to its very smallest part and taken it out of its whole. Positive reinforcement encourages trying and reduces the fear of novel objects and dangerous consequences surrounding the learning environment. But it's not a type of experience that exists in real life so it's less than a complete lesson.

In order for a dog (or any living being) to learn, he or she must first associate the outcome (treat or danger) with an action (trick or skill). This comes naturally to all organisms who survive in their environments. When we train dogs, we want a little more than this understanding that he can acquire bacon by assuming a body posture. We want a dog who will do so when we ask, even if it's hard to concentrate. Treats and life rewards, like running and smelling and being, are a great way to show a dog that assuming a certain position will be rewarded. We can even introduce a cue that indicates "Now would be a good time to assume that posture if you want a reward". But we actually need our dog to offer the behavior when he doesn't want the reward we have given in the past, at all. In many cases, we most need the cue to be understood in a performance or other emergency.

Many trainers who advocate R+ as the best way to introduce novel tasks somehow stop there and demand that training be stress free for life. They don't accept that life is going to throw in some barriers. Even when trainers offer distractions, distance from the trainer/reward, and require the dog to hold position for a longer period of time before the reward happens (all good R+ techniques) they insist that the trainer make it impossible for the dog to fail. They don't seem to understand that lives are at stake. And not just literal lives but quality of life, as well, is in the balance.

No amount of biscuits are going to get two way communication going. What you need is a dog who can handle stressful situations without a meltdown. If you take all the stress out of learning, you'll do just the opposite. The first time your dog is upset by a missed cue or lost reward, he may come apart. Dogs need to handle learning in life, which is sometimes "aversive".

If I ask my dog to sit until I say otherwise on a train track, a properly indoctrinated error proof learning graduate will do it. Did you see Greatest American Dog? A Maltese dutifully remains sitting while an elephant approaches. The little dog repeatedly looked at his handler and implored her to ensure she truly wanted him to remain in place and with her body language and energy, she said, "I've got your back". Great dog. Terrific dog/owner relationship. If you asked this trainer, I'm sure she'd tell you that resilience is the key.

It's a trainer, handler, owner's job to present controlled situations in which a dog can succeed in the face of obstacles, challenges and yes, stress. Teaching your dog to handle unpleasantness with grace, is the most important thing you can teach your dog- most important.

Advocating a training collar of any kind (even flat velvet) is not what I am after. I want the word "aversive" to stop flying around as a moral code for so called humane trainers. If your dog can't come to you when called when conditions are averse to his special needs, your dog is not trained. More importantly, he doesn't trust or understand you. And while training tools can destroy trust in the face of a great relationship, treats won't create any kind of relationship other than with the sight of a door handle or the sound of plastic wrap.

So instead of teaching our dogs that a treat will be forthcoming no matter what, let them earn it. And instead of attacking other trainers for pressuring their dogs to take a leap of faith or just handle a complex problem (when properly prepared) why not teach your dog to face the challenge and prevail? Teach him to be resilient in the face of aversive conditions. Give him the gift of handling his life gracefully.

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