In a previous issue, I presented some ideas about factors that influence learning. The last factor explored relationships and how they affect a dog’s ability to learn. I think this topic is fairly complex as it is dependent upon both parties, the dog and its trainer.
Dogs’ personality types, environmental experiences, and “connectedness” create a being that needs to be evaluated in order to develop a training program that is effective for that dog. Personality types range from independent and dominant to meek and submissive. Life experiences can be anything from feral to well socialized. Through life experiences, young pups learn that human relationships can be anything from scary to comfy. All those variables make up a unique little being that a good trainer strives to figure out as training sessions begin.
Lastly, there seems to be an initial period when a new dog does not reveal its true self, but takes two to three days to adjust. So, I delay any serious training until I see signs that the dog is as his owner described prior to its arrival. To better understand our dogs and design an effective training program, we need to look at personality types.
I evaluate puppies at eight weeks of age using the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test. This tool allows the evaluator to assign a number to responses to each test presented. Total scores give the evaluator an opportunity to label puppies from very independent to people-oriented and confident to meek, submissive, and shy. Each of these puppies can then be nicely matched with buyers to, hopefully, help people pick a puppy best suited for them and their lifestyle. If those test results are available to a trainer, it will help the trainer design a training program for each different puppy. However, I have never gotten such information when I get a new dog to train. Instead, as I get to know that new dog, I can figure out what type of dog he is after he has had time to adjust to my setting.
The easiest dog to train is the dog who scored in the middle, whose average score is 3-4. This dog is usually confident, people-oriented and eager to please who often becomes a very nice Performance dog. Training can begin using positive methods to befriend the new guy and to teach him that training is fun. Each puppy will have an “On” and “Off” switch which the trainer learns as he play-trains the dog.
I like to use predominantly positive methods, but that does not mean a young dog cannot be told “No.” They must experience a balance of both to make headway on his education. I like to use a lot of treats early on to reward the dog for working with me. Yes, I want to teach the pup “Sit,” but at the early stages of training I am more interested in teaching him to enjoy working with me. So, treats (if I pick the right treat) usually help me communicate how fun training is.
I also tend to sing the pup’s praises and pet for anything near to what I am asking him to do. Using a high-pitched, happy voice helps as do intermittent play breaks. Finally, don’t forget body language, as puppies are experts at reading body language. Pay attention to your facial expressions and how you stand, and to what these pieces of information are telling your dog. As examples, hovering will intimidate; smiles will encourage.
The hardest dogs to train are strong, independent thinkers or shy, under-socialized ones. Both of these types of dogs share training steps but do vary in methodology. Both dogs need to be convinced that you are a strong leader who is worth their attention and cooperation. The path to that end is different for these two puppy types.
For the dominant puppy, one who scores a lot of 1s and 2s on Volhard’s evaluation sheet, I work to establish myself as his leader, not his follower. To do this, I play with the puppy to determine the things that are important to him, such as a certain toy or food, etc., that I can use to get his attention and hold it. Sometimes, I hand-feed dogs like this to build a connection that I can use to increase his dependence on me. If he won’t take food from me, as many of these type of dogs won’t at first, I either set the food aside and try again later or I increase the value of his food by adding something fragrant such as hot dogs, cat food, etc.
If I figure out that this puppy loves a certain toy, I control it, and play with him with it but don’t let him have it unless he plays with me. If in play he excludes me, I take the toy away and put it up. I also limit this puppy’s freedom. I want him to rely on me not just for food and toys, but also for fun. The younger the dog, the faster the puppy changes his focus from himself to me. When he begins to eat willingly from my hand, play with me and his toy, and enjoy time spent together, I assume he has adjusted to the concept of being a follower, not a leader.
When I see this change in attitude (usually takes 2-3 days), I also see a puppy that is more open to training. So, I begin teaching concepts that I want this dog to learn, and stop most of the controlling habits I imposed on this puppy when we started (feed normally, lighten up on toy control, give him more freedom).
I have found that this type of puppy may need a different ratio of positive and negative feedback than the puppy mentioned above, as this puppy is more likely to resist training initially. Positive feedback is needed, but must not be used to “beg” this dog to do as told. He interprets that as weakness and his resistance continues.
These puppies are smart and will resist unless there is a consequence for choosing to refuse to sit, come, or down. Consequences may simply be a tight leash (I use an English slip lead or kennel lead for training) that loosens as soon as they comply and sit; or leash tugs that loosen as soon as the puppy decides to come. This initial approach to training is key to converting this dog to a follower status. If leniency is employed, this stage takes much longer (or it may never change), but once the dog understands, training can begin.
Lastly is the timid puppy or dog, one who can be identified as scoring predominantly 5s and 6s on Volhard’s assessment sheet. These dogs are often under-socialized, so socialization at his pace can make a big difference. I think this dog takes the longest to train as he worries about everything new, and many actually freeze to avoid “scary” stuff such as loud noises, brooms, etc. Many people don’t want to stress these dogs, which was my original approach, but I have been trying other methods with some success.
First, I never “reassure” these dogs by petting them when they display worried behavior. I think such treatment reinforces that unwanted behavior rather than helps the dog to overcome its unreasonable fear. I prefer to either ignore the behavior or calmly tell him to “Stop.” I have also found that if I put this dog into a small harmonious group of well-socialized, confident dogs, he seems to observe the other dogs’ response to “scary” things and soon mirrors the behavior of the more comfortable dogs.
This does not mean that this dog won’t still react to new things with a start, but he will gradually improve beyond his initial fearful response to everything. Once I see some changes in this dog’s reactions, I begin exposing him to more scary things such as the scary basement stairs or the scary van, etc. I make the dog face those scary things by making him go up or down those stairs on a leash.
I use the slip leash and tug to move him towards or onto the steps, release when he is moving forward, tightening again when he backs away. I repeat this technique until the dog makes it up or down the steps. Then we party with praise and a big “jackpot” to make sure he knows he did something awesome.
From there, most dogs “get it” and are going up and down those scary steps independently with great pride in a day or two. When the dog has faced and overcome a fear like this, our relationship begins to change from “scary person” to someone he can trust. This occurrence signals that I can begin Obedience training. Unlike the dominant dog, this timid one will need lots of positive feedback for even the smallest effort to do each exercise. I keep training time short and focus on only one or two exercises at first. As the dog gains confidence, I add exercises and time to our sessions until this dog is doing the same routine as all the others.
So, get to know your puppy or dog and make a plan. “No size fits all!”