So, you’ve decided you want to be a dog trainer. There is much to learn, but if I had to give anyone some advice about how to set yourself up for success at the art and science of training, here are five down and dirty quick tips:
1. Get a quality education. There’s no substitute for knowing the science upon which animal training is based. That means a college or community college level Psychology 101 course, or an online course in animal learning is a good start. One of the best is given by Dr. Susan Friedman, and is called Living and Learning With Animals. Trainers need to thoroughly understand what drives behavior, and how to use those principles to modify it. They cannot rely on pop psychology, intuition, energy, or quackery. Some of my picks for schools that offer quality education are: The Academy for Dog Trainers, Dognostics Career College, Karen Pryor Academy, and Peaceable Paws.
2. Get all breed animal handling experience. You must pay your dues. Volunteer for an animal shelter, or apprentice with someone in the profession. Work at a dog day care or kennel. You aren’t a trainer yet, even if you earn a diploma or credential, if you’ve only trained your own dogs, even if they did well in sports, work, or competition. All dogs learn by association and by consequences, and while breed differences don’t mean that you have to use methods that aren’t in line with your ethical standards, there are some breed tendencies that it’s helpful to know about.
3. Join a professional association that is aligned with your ethical core values as a trainer. The organization can be a great source of continuing education, insurance coverage, trade discounts, camaraderie with and support from like-minded trainers, an an advocacy ally and marketing partner. As an example, my professional affiliation is with The Pet Professional Guild.
4. Always strive for technical excellence. World class animal trainer, Bob Bailey, is credited with saying that training is simple, but not easy. So, if an animal fails a task, a good trainer ALWAYS looks to their own competency, or lack thereof, before blaming the dog or searching in the proverbial desert for some potion, diet, or new and improved pop science protocol. When things go awry, try to assess whether your own fundamentals are sound. Did you motivate the dog with something the dog views as a worthy reinforcement? Did you set criteria well, and not overface the learner? Do you have a written training plan and are you documenting progress? Was your rate of reinforcement high enough? Did you set the dog up for success? Is training FUN???
5. Always err on the side of professionalism. It’s poor form to give veterinary, nutrition, or grooming advice unless you have a credential. If someone calls to ask about puppy class, much as you want to, don’t contradict a vet’s advice about waiting, Instead, you could simply say that your training center follows AVSAB guidelines and provide the client with information they can ask their vet about without undermining the advice they were given. Overstepping professional bounds is dangerous. Integrity can earn you referrals from vets who learn they can trust you, but your business can suffer if vets feel you are not respecting their professional boundaries. Read the rest of this entry
A terrific simple explanation of a very useful concept.
Sometimes the dog training lingo can be a little overwhelming. As in many fields, the professionals seem to have their own language that is not easily or readily understood by the public at large. Dog trainers are no different. To make it worse, we use acronyms to avoid spelling out those long words. I am as guilty as any other dog training professional of writing OC in place of Operant Conditioning or CC&D for Counter Conditioning and Desensitization.
An acronym that has been coming up a lot recently is +CER. To a pet dog owner, that could mean anything from “Add Correct Energy Reaction” to “Increase Carrots, Eggs and Radishes”.
So what exactly IS a +CER?
A CER is a conditioned emotional response. It is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a subset of classical conditioning because the subject makes a reflexive association with the trigger. There is no behavior…
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Back in August, I posted A Dog Training Epiphany, highlighting a success story from one of the members of the Reactive Dogs Facebook Group. Today, another member posted a joyful success, which she also agreed to share with the readers of my blog:
“This is very much related to desensitizing our reactive dogs to their triggers because it shows that any traumatic experience, even one repeated multiple times and leading to serious defensive displays from the dog, *can* be turned into their favorite game. The underlying fears disappear and with them the accompanying aggressive behaviors.
I wonder how many people here can’t trim their dogs’ nails without some drama. My dog wouldn’t let us touch her paws, let alone trim the nails. It was before I learned anything about desensitizing so I took her to several vets where she was muzzled and held down by several people for the procedure. Of course that made things worse, she would not walk back into those clinics voluntarily so I kept going to new vets (and yes, she’s absolutely terrified of vet visits now – working on reversing that). She became much more cautious with me which broke my heart because except for the paws, I could handle her without issues.
I’m so glad wheels started spinning in my head at some point that there has to be a better way. And what do you know, there is! A wonderful, gentle, and skilled groomer that had met Zoe on a few occasions trimmed her nails twice in a much happier atmosphere than the few times at the vet. And a slow process of desensitization at home followed. Touching her paws and rewarding that with delicious food. Showing her the trimmer and tossing her beloved tennis ball. Touching the paws *with* the trimmer and following that with a game of tug. All in a silly, goofy, playful way to make it a fun game. Watching her comfort level every second of the way. Eventually, I celebrated cutting one nail at a time. Then two. I was thrilled when she let me take care of one full paw for a game of fetch. Then two paws. Eventually, we got to the point where I could trim all the nails at once as she was looking forward to the tennis ball crazy that followed. Slowly, the tennis ball anticipation eased up and she was ok with me trimming the nails even if nothing super fun happened at the end. She was tolerating it very nicely and we’ve been trimming the nails once a week. But today she totally shocked me by showing the same kind of joy at the sight of the nail trimmer that is usually reserved for her toys! That, I did not expect.
I picked up the nail trimmer, she saw it and got a nice big grin on her face… came up to me, sniffed the trimmer and trotted over to the window where I usually trim her nails and looked back at me, all ready and happy. “Come on, mom, hurry up, I love this game!” I swear when it was over, she looked disappointed that she only has four paws.
In case anyone still had any doubt that a negative experience CAN be turned into an extremely positive one. It can. The process took a year and it was very much worth the trouble. I know I could do it faster now. The things you learn…”
Anyone who has a dog that hates nail clipping can understand how nice it would if the dog didn’t have to be so scared. Even if you don’t ever want to trim your dog’s nails yourself, you can do some nail clip husbandry training to help your dog cope better at the grooming salon or vet clinic, using the same technique that worked so well for the person who shared her story above. Using similar training, you can teach a dog to enjoy teeth brushing, too. Or, with this technique, you can teach your dog to accept wearing a muzzle or head halter.
Sometimes, when you are new to the desensitization and counter-conditioning technique used to get a dog to be OK with something he was previously frightened of, it’s hard to see when you are getting that change in emotional response to the trigger stimulus, i.e. the nail clipper, toothbrush, muzzle, etc. Eileen, from Eileenanddogs, shows how to tell when the dog is developing a positive conditioned emotional response.
Getting a dog to accept husbandry procedures can be accomplished at any age, as the although the best time to start is when puppies are very young. More and more, trainers are including husbandry and handling exercises during puppy kindergarten, as we do at Paws for Praise (resistance to body handling is associated with a higher risk for aggression). As savvy consumers, owners should ask for husbandry training, and veterinarians who want to spend less time struggling to get these procedures done should refer to force free trainers who incorporate husbandry training and body handling in their curriculum.
This is Zoe, the dog who now likes nail trims, and the tennis ball that made all the difference!
I moderate several Facebook groups, in addition to my business page for Paws for Praise, one of which is dedicated to reactive dogs and the use of desensitization, counter-condtioning, and positive reinforcement to effect lasting changes in behavior for such dogs. The object is to keep the dog feeling safe, gradually convince the dog that the things that used to scare him are actually pretty cool (trainers call that a “positive conditioned emotional response), and add some obedience or impulse control behaviors once the dog is feeling better about the trigger stimuli.
Interestingly, despite a very long history of success of these humane, and well researched, methods, there are trainers who espouse other methods, some of which are not so pleasant from the dog’s perspective. Sometimes, it’s hard for students of such trainers to switch gears and try something like the CARE protocol.
Every once in a while, though, someone jumps ship and crosses over to a new way of training – I like to call it an epiphany. This is just one of their stories, which was posted this morning, and which I’m proud to have received permission to share in its entirety. From Reactive Dogs Facebook group member, Nichola Luna:
“This post is going to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech and it kind of is because I feel like I have won something very special – a change of perspective. So before I start crying I want to say thank you to all of you for sharing your experiences and being supportive, thank you for being tolerant of my noob questions / comments, thank you to Anne Springer for running this group and most of all thank you to whoever it was who posted ‘DON’T BE STINGY WITH YOUR TREATS’.
What I’m going to say is going to sound so stupid and obvious to those of you who already understand but please remember this next time you meet / read a post from someone who says R+ only won’t work. As someone who has been brought up on old school ‘yank and crank’, being told R+ only can work is rather like seeing the picture of the old woman and being told that it is a picture of a young lady. Once you have one perspective, it is really, really, REALLY hard to see the other. For me, treats were always seen as a reward for obedience but now I understand that actually they are there to make my dog happy. It sounds so stupid yet it has completely transformed me and my dog which I will tell you all about as soon as I have finished glorying in my ‘penny drop’ moment.
Basically I have been working on faith here up until now. My dogs are livestock guardian dogs and some people will tell you that they can’t be trained to be obedient. My old girl was trained ‘old school’ and is a very good girl and I understand why – she has been conditioned to avoid an aversive (leash check) by responding to a verbal cue. Of course she was encouraged with rewards of games/praise/treats but I didn’t see how you could remove the aversive and still get obedience as this type of training is prone to extinction anyway as soon as you reduce the aversive even. You have to re condition periodically. If you just have rewards then the dog is simply choosing whether it wants the reward you are offering or the reward it has found for itself. This is why old school trainers say ‘bribery’ can’t work alone. There is nothing weighing in the trainers favour, the dog has 100% chance of reward whether it is obedient or not. And they are absolutely right ( if you only reward your dog for obedience, it’s too little too late. )Conclusion: these R+ only people, are clearly a bunch of mad hippies, who only own golden retrievers that love liver cake more than anything else in the world, which is why it works for them and not on real dogs like mine…
I decided to give it a try anyway. I never liked the puzzled / upset look I got from my dog when she got it ‘wrong’ and hit the end of the lead, even though I tried to make up for it with games and praise and treats. I also suspect the unnatural, sudden turns may have attributed to the wear and tear on her cruciate ligaments. So I decided that my new one was going to be an experiment in R+ only and to be perfectly honest, it’s been slow going. I thought mainly because I’m human and didn’t train often enough because I was tired from work or busy or whatever. There has been more than one occasion when I have thought ‘I can see why people stick to old school methods – it’s much quicker/more effective’. Now I realise that this was because I was being stingy with my treats! I was doing R+ only, but old school style. I still had old school mentality to treats; that they were there for shaping, luring and rewarding for obedience.
Luckily someone posted the advice ‘don’t be stingy with your treats’ and along with the other comments I had read, stuff about ‘look at me’, clicker training and picking up on when others treat their dogs, I decided to change tack and feed for everything good, no matter how small or inadvertent, with a cue word attached. ‘Well duh!’ I can hear you all say it and now it seems so obvious but mentally, it was a total paradigm shift for me to reward behaviour rather than obedience. Feed my dog just to make her happy? Yes. Without her having actually ‘obeyed’ anything necessarily? Yes. Weird… …but OK I’m getting desperate now, let’s try it. Result? Exponential explosion in desired behaviours, better recalls than I ever had from ‘yank and crank’ training methods, beautiful lead walking and me repeatedly smacking myself upside the head for being a doofus for so long, and all in a matter of weeks.
These however, have been my ‘jack pot’ instances this week that made me really want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me to understand how to train my dog and see the young lady instead of the old crone.
First was when she spotted a horse in the next field, previously this would have sent her into a frenzy. Instead she stood calmly looking at it, looked at me, looked back at the horse and before I could open my mouth she turned around and started trotting back to me to collect her ‘prize’ for seeing a big four legs. A previous trigger, is now acting as a cue to recall.
Off lead, (my bad as we had seen ‘The’ cows and said hi and bye to them so assumed it was OK to let her off to chase the bunnies up the far end it’s a huge field, the cows were long out of sight by this point), was just thinking she was getting a bit wired and was time to put her back on the lead when she stopped dead, facing into the field. I came over the rise to see there was a new, second herd of cows in the field and my dog was twice as close to them than to me. Anyone with a reactive dog will know this is nightmare scenario #1. She was tense, my first attempt to call her came out a strangled squeak and was probably blown away in the wind. She started to walk / stalk towards the cows. I was having visions of stampedes, broken legs and a shot dog. I called ‘wait’ and she stopped, still staring at the cows. I called her to me, and blow me if she didn’t instantly turn her back on the cows and come galloping back to me! I fed her sooo many treats. My hands were shaking so much I could hardly get her lead back on. I just sat in the wet grass and gave her a chest rub and more treats.
Before then, I don’t think I believed, in my heart of hearts, that I could actually, genuinely, really, truly, CC a response without aversive measures. In that awful, heart stopping moment, my spoilt little ‘R+ only’ brat, proved to me that I can.”