Why do we DO that?

I’m talking about trainer error.

Ranger has been working on his “go to your bed” cue. What I want him to do is go to his bed and lie down when I say:

Blanket!

We’re in a groove (need to get some pictures and video to show you guys the steps!) and then this happens.

I try to add a little more distance, and it’s a tad too much for Ranger. I tell him “Blanket!” and he stares at me and cocks his head.

You know, like this (Not Ranger)

o-DOG-COCKED-HEAD-facebook

And then what do I do.

“Ranger… BLANKET!!”

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

I don’t want to train Ranger that the cue for Blanket is “Blanket….  Ranger… BLANKET!!!

I don’t want Ranger to think that “Blanket” means “cock your head and stand still for a second, then run to your bed and lie down”.

I don’t want Ranger to get confused about what I am asking him.

Yet there I stand, having said “Blanket….  Ranger… BLANKET!!!

Why?

I think we all want to help our dogs. We want them to succeed.  We want them to learn. That’s why people do things like pushing their butt down for Sit (over and over and over) and telling them a cue over and over or accepting a dramatically inferior behavior and giving them the treat anyway. But if you have ever thought this or done this (on purpose or not!), step back and think about it.

We help our dogs by being consistent in our expectations. If you ask an employee to write a report and sometimes you accept it without certain bullets or without certain definitions or without certain metrics and sometimes you send it back with an angry email, your employee is never going to understand what you actually want, or how to avoid your ire. It’s worse for them. Same for our dogs! Have your training steps in mind, know what you are looking for, and if “head cock, sniff around for a minute, go lie down on bed” isn’t in your plan, have the dog try again.

Our dogs succeed when are consistent in our cues. You know the dog that doesn’t lie down until his owner has said “Down… down. Down.  Buddy, DOWN!” And then he does it? That owner trained her dog that the cue is hearing a specific sort of human gobbledygook 4 times.  Then the owner gets frustrated! Don’t get upset at your dog for how you trained him, and don’t try to “help” him by messing up his opportunity for reinforcement, which is hearing a clear, specific cue…one time.  Otherwise, the signal(s) you are giving will look like this to your dog:

Lost and Confused Signpost

Our dogs learn when we are consistent in our reinforcement. This doesn’t mean always rewarding every time; in fact, intermittent reinforcement can improve a behavior. It does mean that we don’t reinforce just because our dog is cute, or because he tried. By consistently reinforcing only the behaviors that meet our standards, we are creating a clear way for them to earn their reward. If you are training using successive approximation, or mini-steps toward a specific goal, it is vital that you reward only for things that are, well, successive – in a logical sequence. “What you click is what you get” is still a great maxim. Even in daily life, if you know something is not within the range of expectation you have established, don’t reinforce it!  This may sound obvious, but how many people look at, talk to, and pet their dog when they come home, and THEN say “No, Lassie, get down”?

The takeaway today is going to be this – it is more loving, kind, and helpful to our dogs to be consistent in our expectations, cues, and reinforcements than to try to give them extra leeway on behavior, extra verbal cues or “help” with our hands, or extra rewards for behavior we don’t actually want.

Have you made the mistake of “wanting to be nice” before during training? Does this help give you a new perspective on teaching or interacting with your dog? Let me know in the comments!

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