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When training dogs using primarily positive reinforcement there is always an emphasis on allowing the dog to be successful. The general wisdom is that when you hit a challenge in training you “go back to kindergarten”, by making the task simpler and therefore giving the dog the opportunity to earn reinforcement. This can be good advice, although it can also lead to really ineffective training if you aren’t careful. While it’s a really good thing that the old days of force based training are over, it’s important to realize that there is always going to be an element of stress associated with any learning. Never raising expectations beyond your dog’s comfort zone might be stress free, but you may find that your training hits a plateau that can be really hard to move past.
We’ve all seen the training videos that demonstrate shaping, where dogs happily offer behaviors at lightening speed, thoroughly enjoy whatever reinforcement is offered, and learn new skills before the viewer gets tired of watching. I’m sure there are real-time training sessions that actually happen that way, but there are a lot more that happen at a very different pace. It can be easy to leap to judgement and assume that less “operant” dogs are always the product of harsh training methods or a lack of relationship with the trainer, but reality is that some dogs are just not as excited to play the training game as others. Even the most basic of training can mean leaving the dog’s comfort zone behind, but the willingness to do this can have huge benefit to the dog’s quality of life and bond with their owner.
In order to teach dogs using positive reinforcement, the trainer must be willing and able to control access to something that the dog wants. This is pretty easy to do if the dog loves something like a tug toy or food treat. If a dog isn’t so easily impressed, the first step in training has to be building value for a useful reinforcer. Useful is key- Wally, a male PBGV, would do most anything for a live rabbit or a bitch in season, but neither are socially acceptable rewards for me to bring to agility class. When Wally came to live with me as an older puppy, he didn’t know how to eat outside of his crate. Before any training could start, I had to spend several weeks expanding his comfort zone by asking him to eat in other locations, starting in the house and then moving to other places. With Wally this process took a few weeks, but with Juno the GBGV it took several months of hand feeding every meal before I could even begin setting criteria to acquire food as a reward. Even after almost seven years, each training session with Juno is a balancing act. Raising criteria even in minuscule amounts can be stressful for a dog, and pushing too far can lead to shutdown. In Juno’s case, the Grand shutdown is pretty extreme- usually involving rolling over, submissive urination, and growling at me all at the same time. Avoiding this while still making progress in training is where the art comes in. As much as we like to consider modern training methods to be science based, knowing how much stress is too much and how much is not enough is still a very difficult thing to qualify, except that if the relationship between trainer and dog is present, you will know it when you see it.