The scientific name for our training methodology is operant conditioning. It means that the biggest influence on a behavior is the consequence – what happens immediately after the behavior. If it is something the animal (dog, whale, person, etc.) likes, it will do that behavior more. If it is something the animal does not like, it will do that behavior less. With enough enjoyable or beneficial results for a behavior, the animal will offer that behavior more and more.
Trainers at Service Dogs, Inc. reinforce behaviors we want with many types of rewards (food, toys, praise, petting, letting the dog do a behavior it likes, like getting in the car). In our kennel, we want the dogs to be quiet and calm. When they are quiet, we reward them. They quickly learn that when we walk by their kennel suites, if they are quiet and sitting or laying down, they get a treat. This motivates them to be quiet and calm, so they can get more rewards. (If they bark and jump, we ignore them until they are quiet and calm. Then they get a treat.)
SDI Trainers never use aversives (things the dog does not like). We never strike the dogs, jerk on their leashes, scold them or withhold food. We do not want the dogs to work because they are afraid of getting punished. We want them to work because they have a good relationship with the trainer based on a history of lots of positives.
What if a dog does something we don’t want? Like jumping on us?
Well first, you have to ask yourself: “Do I want this behavior?” If you are training a dog to be in a movie where he has to jump on a person, then yes, you want that behavior. Behaviors are not “good” or “bad”, they are just “desirable” or “undesirable”. Dogs in movies do lots of things we do not want our pet dogs to do!
ANY change the dog can cause by doing something is reinforcing to it. (Think class clown.) Even if you are jerking his leash, yelling at him or pushing him off you, you are giving him attention. ANY ATTENTION IS BETTER (MORE REINFORCING) THAN NO ATTENTION!
So the LEAST reinforcing thing to do is : NOTHING.
Next, you REDIRECT the dog to a desirable behavior. Experienced trainers will redirect to a desirable behavior that in INCOMPATIBLE with the undesirable behavior. That means that it is impossible to do both behaviors at the same time.
So, if you do not want your dog to jump on you, you teach it something to do that is impossible to do at the same time as jumping. A “down” is perfect for this. It is impossible for the dog to jump while it is lying down.
The dog becomes used to getting rewarded for downs. This builds up the downs. Then, if you come home and your dog jumps on you, you ignore it and tell it “down”. It only gets your attention for the down; nothing for jumping. The dog will eventually give you downs in order to get the rewards. And when it is lying down, it cannot jump.
Another example, is being at your side is incompatible with pulling on the leash. So we reward the dogs a lot for being at our side while walking. A dog at your side cannot chase other animals, run down the block, jump on other people, steal food from the floor and do lots of other behaviors we decide we don’t want. So building up lots of rewards for being at your side is a smart investment!
Why don’t we use punishment? 5 reasons:
- We want our dogs working for us and their partners because they want to, not because we force them to.
- Punishments like striking a dog, yanking on its leash to tighten a choke collar around its neck, electric shock collars and other types of things that hurt dogs (and other animals and people) have very bad side effects.
- Aggression-When you use aggression on an animal (and this includes people), you can get aggression back. A dog can bite someone who has hurt it. A person can hit (or worse) someone who has hit him or her.
- Escapism – Animals learn to avoid pain. If you have a history of hurting a dog (or a person) that individual may try to avoid you or get away from you. Elephants that “rampage” through towns are often just trying to get away from a handler that has hurt them many times. Children frequently run away from parents who hurt or abuse them.
- Learned helplessness – Giving up. Sometimes, when an animal or person is hurt enough, they “zone out”. They take the beating but they mentally disconnect from the situation.
- Many of the people we train for do not have full use of their hands or fingers. Even if we wanted to use punishment techniques, our recipients could not physically yank leashes and push shock collar remote control buttons.
- Punishment does not work if you do not know the animal is doing something wrong. A deaf person does not know a Hearing Dog has failed to alert her to the door knock. The dog is getting the cue to work, not from a command from the person, but from a sound the deaf person does not even know about. It makes sense to have that dog work because it wants to. And that is done by creating a history of lots of rewards for sound alerts.
- Emergencies – Sometimes, someone will fall out of a wheelchair and need the Service Dog to go find help. If the dog has been working to avoid punishments, this is his big chance to get away from the person who has hurt him. How motivated will he be to work when it is impossible for the person to punish him? Abraham Maslow, author of The Hierchy of Human Needs wrote, “There is no such thing as a well-adjusted slave.” Instead, if the person has built a relationship of trust and positive motivation through lots of great rewards for correct behaviors, including fetching help, the dog will be motivated to assist him.
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