Two Powerful Enemies In Learning
A wise man named Bart Bellon once said to me:
“If I were to strap an e-collar to your leg and one to your dog, would you push the button as frequently and as confidently as if it was only on your dog? Are you 100 percent sure that your dog knows exactly what they should be doing to avoid or escape the consequences of their actions?“
Bart added, “Is your dog consciously choosing to disobey you?” He explained that if so, you should have no problem pushing the button, saying no, or taking away their new self warming dog food bowl - right? Undesirable behaviors deserve consequences. “Ask my wife,” he said. He does have a light side :)
If you possibly hesitated, like I did when I first heard that scenario years ago, this article will help.
I use dog specific tools so infrequently now that I feel weird around most professional dog folks. I feel naked without my layers of remote collar lanyards banging around like Flavor Flav’s temporal jewelry obsession.
I personally focus much more intensely on getting to know the true emotional problems of the dog, and I don’t like to cover them up with band-aids. That’s dangerous.
It seems owners have been convinced tools are the most important thing to help control their dogs’ behavior these days. How many magic leashes, harnesses, or treat dispensers have you been spammed with by Facebook ads or possibly seen in the latest dog training seminar you attended? All physical solutions to emotional problems. This doesn't work long term. It can make the problem worse in my experience, increasing frustration and confusing the dog, meanwhile decreasing the client’s likelihood of following through when results don’t show.
I was saddened recently when I saw a sales page from a pet business coach that made references to teaching different “tools and techniques” to the participants of their next “learn from me and you'll be a millionaire” seminar. After reading the confusing copy, I thought to myself, “I didn’t know dogs were so deceptive. I thought they only spoke dog - loyalty, compassion, the never ending search for balance. Cool stuff like that.”
Truly, I have no judgment for people that choose different ways to train their dogs. Who am I to say Biggie is better than Tupac? Or to tell an artist what brush to paint their masterpiece with. (But come on. There’s obviously no question about it…Biggie is totally better!! EAST COAST BABY)
Please send hate mail directly to firstname.lastname@example.org :)
“The first time I use a tool, I’m thinking of how to get rid of it.” -Ray Hunt
No matter how many times I tell people that tools should not be where they focus their attention, they do anyway because it is popular and can be easier than facing the real problem. It’s cool though. We all have our journey to go through. But if you are set on using tools, what I would like to do in this article is to save you from making two crucial errors while you are finding their way.
#1 Don’t teach pressure and new skills at the same time, and
#2 Overshadowing, or trigger stacking, in dog training is the enemy of you, your dog, and progress.
Let’s start with the first one: teaching pressure separately from learning a new skill.
If your sport or obedience routine requires teaching down, sit, come, retrieves, then these skills should be taught away from any tools or stress AND taught with motivations the dog enjoys.
If these two steps are done properly and separately, you can reduce the stress for dogs immensely. I’ve seen it done other ways and it’s sad. Could you personally imagine learning a new skill and at the same time being under unexplained pain? Thinking under stress that is perceived to be out of your control has been scientifically proven to be more stressful than knowing you did something wrong and receiving a consequence. It’s the control-or lack thereof-that affects the stress hormones in the blood.
An example. Are you familiar with the old school method of stepping on a dog’s leash to teach him or her to lay down? Or lifting up on the leash till the dog sits, to teach him to sit? Me too.
What I don’t enjoy about that process is it can be extremely stressful because the dog is learning about stress, the desired obedience skill, and how to turn off pressure all at the same time. What I have seen occur occasionally is strong oppositional reflex responses, dogs who may shut down, and dogs who never enjoy the skill because it is paired with the feeling of stress and dread. It’s because of how they learned it. The baggage of the stressed feelings and the obedience skill are paired together. How is the poor dog suppose to make sense of it all?
I’ve seen it get ugly quick. Too much, too fast, and unfortunately any problems that arise from it are usually blamed on the “stubborn, dumb, dominant” dog.
Personal Experience #2: Overshadowing or Trigger Stacking
A lot of folks when working with animals abuse what in the animal learning world is called overshadowing. Overshadowing is defined as giving multiple inputs/stimuli to an animal at the same time during the learning phase. Usually by mixing a physical cue with a verbal one.
What the hell did he just say?
Examples - got ya.
-You have seen your friend do this before. “Watch this!” They say sit 10 times (the dog looks at him like what), then they raise their hand like they learned in their 6-week OB class, and the dog finally sits. That’s overshadowing.
-You tell a dog “lets go” and hit the button on the remote collar at the same time, or you give a tug on the leash and at the same time say “let’s go.” Overshadowing!
-Maybe you say sit and use the leash at the same time. Or even the dreaded say sit and make the lifting hand gesture over the dog’s head. We have all seen it. Those folks should be taken out to the firing squad! Juuust teasing. But anyway, that’s overshadowing.
The problem with all these scenarios? It’s totally unclear what the dog is actually responding to because everything is happening with no purpose or predictability to the patterns. What actually caused the action “let’s go?” Was is it the physical cue of the e-collar or leash, the verbal “let’s go” cue, or was it your body language moving away from them showing the direction you were headed? How do you know which one was the cause for their behavior change? ANSWER… You don’t unless you do them one at a time and see what they respond to.
Imagine you are just learning French, and when your teacher says, “pomme,” she holds up an apple while also pointing at a chair. How the hell are you supposed to learn what pomme means?! Just like that, learning how to share the same language just became a million times harder. That’s exactly what you do to your dog by overshadowing.
As humans we can be overstimulating input factories, complicating simple tasks for our dogs. It’s amazing to me how many dogs still find a way to get it right.
Overshadowing can be the devil and is single-handily a major contributor to why so many people struggle to remove physical help or training tools from their training programs. If it’s been two years and you are still using the same strategy without the results you are looking for, this could be a good place to start.
Body language, eye contact, physical contact, verbal warnings, and on and on… these are the tools dogs use to communicate. Those are the tools they understand clearly because they are native to them. If you are using other tools to work with dogs, make sure you are careful to make it clear and with the least amount of stress for them. Avoiding these two common training mistakes will help keep you on the right path towards your desired goals.
Belly Scratches and Head Rubs