BEING A GOOD TEACHER
By Augusta Farley
The art of teaching
When you decide to live with a dog, there are certain roles you will automatically acquire in the building of a good relationship. In addition to caretaker and friend, a third role, teacher, is the won most people focus on because if played well, it gives us the greatest opportunity to create and enhance communication between us and a dog.
Some trainers and behaviorists call this role being alpha or a leader. I find it more productive to think of this a giving people good teaching skills. Being a good teacher implies being a leader. In fact, our ultimate goal in living with a dog is mutual respect and understanding. Being a good teacher/leader/alpha is but a means to the end.
I jokingly tell my clients that if they want human behavior counseling, I will charge three times my canine behavior counseling fee. Teaching people how to teach dogs is a lot easier than changing a human personality from beta to alpha.
Of course, it is impossible to learn how to teach well from reading an article or two. Good teaching requires an ability to observe and understand behavior in conjunction with an appropriate level of knowledge and skill. In working with people and dogs over the last 20 plus year, I have focused on a few areas that help to de-mystify behavior and training.
What does the dog know and when does it know it?
First, clarify what the dog knows from its point of view and under want circumstances it knows it. Almost every owner having problems insists that the dog knows better but is “stubborn”, “stupid”, “defiant”, or “spiteful” (pick one or more). Upon hearing this I ask the client if he is she ever drives over the speed limit. Most people will admit to this, unless a police officer is present or environmental conditions make it impossible such as speed bumps, curves, or people in the street. The light goes on. Many of our dogs live in the same manner. Unless the owner/police officer is around to enforce the rules and visibly remind the dog of the consequence if they are broken, couches will be convenient to lie on and holes will be fun to dig. Yes, the dog may stay off the cough when we are around, but it does not have clear cues about staying off the couch when we are not present. In other words, it has not been trained well enough to understand under all circumstances.
In learning how to teach, we must also learn how to set up the environment in a way to maximize the dog’s learning and thus give the teacher/owner a chance of succeeding. Many behaviors are more easily managed with environmental controls to prevent their occurrence rather than bye actively training the dog. This is true of almost all behaviors that occur out of sight of the owner. Nuisance barking, yard and house destruction, roaming, car chasing, and counter cruising are all habits better prevented rather than fixed after the fact.
This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue.
"FIDO, COME": TEACHING THE A,B,C'S
By Augusta Farley
In living with a dog one of the best relationships comes as a result of being a good teacher. Here I this article I will give you a method to create behaviors skillfully and productively. To illustrate, we will look at teaching Fido to come when called.
“Come” does not just happen. It is the result of associations and understandings that the dog creates in its memory. As teachers, it is our job to help the dog put the pieces together correctly.
“Fido, Come.” He looks at you. You step toward him to get closer. He looks away. You repeat “Come” as you walk toward him. Fido jogs out of reach, or worse, takes off, as you keep calling . . . , hoping . . . praying then cursing. You give up and go home. Fido shows up a short while later.
How do we get so good at teaching our dogs not to come? Let us look at the A, B, C paradigm to turn this scenario around.
“A” stands for Antecedent. Antecedents are cures which trigger behavior. For a dog to respond reliably to the recall, the cues, or words, body language and context, have to be clear. In the above scenario, the word “Come” and the owner’s body language were in conflict. In addition, the command became associated with the behavior of running away. The cues for “Come” became “blinking green lights”, thus, meaningless.
“B” is for Behavior. What exactly do you want Fido to do? If you are not clear, do not expect the dog to be. For good communication you and your dog must be thinking each other’s thoughts.
“Come” is a complex behavior. My concept looks like this: On command the dog should: 1) spin its head and body 180 degrees (if looking away), 2) jet propel toward me in a straight line, and 3) skid to a sit in front while flipping its eyes to mine. By breaking the behavior down into its parts, I can work on clarifying and practicing the weaker areas.
“C” is for Consequence. A well-educated dog knows what to do upon hearing “Come” because it anticipates the result of its performance. If the teacher is good, Fido will work to achieve the perks of good behavior and avoid the unpleasant results of wrong behavior. Perks which make “Come” more likely to happen again are called reinforcers, or, loosely, rewards. Unpleasant consequences are punishers, or corrections, which make behavior less likely to happen again.
In the scenario above, the owner inadvertently punished “Come” by stepping toward the dog the moment it started the recall sequence, turning the head. Stepping toward a dog naturally puts pressure on a naïve or sensitive dog to move away. Many dogs have unpleasant memories about being caught, so all it takes is one step to remind them hat life is more pleasant elsewhere. Because turning the head was punished by mistake Fido never had a chance to learn that turning its head was desirable. The owner missed the opportunity to reinforce that first step.
Conclusion: Very simply, if Fido does not respond properly by coming when called or doing any behavior, assume the teacher has not been clear with the A, B, C’s.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue.
August Farley is a professional dog trainer and behavior counselor.
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