Knowing when to take a break.

Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services, has once again provided the basis for a blog post. Their Facebook post from January 11, 2016 is a terrific summary of why dogs have bad training days and what you can do about it. Here it is, with my notes or comments in italics or with asterisks:

Tuesday’s Pearl: Dogs can be overwhelmed by training.

Training your dog to perform a new task can be gratifying, especially when your dog really seems to ‘get it’. Doing it well requires knowledge of operant conditioning*, finding the right positive reinforcer** for the individual dog in front of you, and keeping expectations in check as you approximate the task being trained. But dogs are only human; like us, they can have bad training days for a number of reasons.


I’m trying, but I”m not sure I understand what you want me to do!

Overwhelmed or confused dogs may begin to exhibit conflict signals such as yawning, turning away or lowering their bodies.*** Others may show displacement behaviors such as barking, jumping up or mouthing, mounting, stretching or simply walking away. To the untrained trainer’s eye, this might look like “stubborn” or even “dominant” behavior, but it is more simple than that (and it is never an issue of dominance). She doesn’t know what you want, and is frustrated or no longer willing to cooperate in this futile activity. (Emphasis mine.).


In most cases, the dog is being asked to perform/offer a behavior beyond his understanding. This is often the case in training, of course, but if you’re working on a complex behavior and skipping the smaller steps, the dog may simply stop working. A few tips to help him get back on track:


Reward the desired behavior with something or dog loves.

Reward increments that lead to a final behavior. Here we rewarded Roxy for coming from just a few feet away. As she got more consistent about turning and coming, we increased the distance we asked her to come.

• Go back a few steps in training and move forward more slowly. (Also consider training in smaller increments of time, say 5-10 minutes at a time. This will help both of you to avoid frustration).
• Break the training down into smaller steps. (Think in terms of parts of a behavior. For example, if you want your dog to sit when greeting guests, start with teaching your dog to sit, then sit at your side. Then teach him to stay while at your side. Then stay while you move away, stay while you move to the door, stay while the door opens, etc., until you have built a complete behavior).
• Take a day or two to review and reinforce what the dog already knows well.
• Give your dog time to think – your own impatience may be undermining his ability to learn. A little breather between steps can give your dog the chance to offer something he’s figured out for himself. (I remind my students that after you ask your dog to do something, count to 5 while you wait for his response. This allows the dog to process what you have asked him to do and respond.  Also, when your dog does something exactly as requested, reward him well and end your training session on that perfect note. Practice this behavior for a few sessions before you move onto the next step).
• Swallow your human pride and consider abandoning an exercise that repeatedly frustrates your dog (and you). Try something else.


Hudson and Bingley wait for instructions from headquarters.

Hudson and Bingley eagerly await instructions. For them, playing ball was as valuable a reward as food, so I reinforced checking in with me with a chance to play fetch.

Like us, dogs are better at learning when they enjoy the process, and they’ll enjoy it much more if they have the opportunity to succeed (i.e.: are positively reinforced).** If our dogs seem overwhelmed or apathetic, the responsibility is entirely ours to find a solution – and there almost always is one.”

If you find yourself uncertain as to how to proceed with your training, give me a call! I offer group and private lessons which can help you and your pooch get back into your training groove.







*Operant conditioning:operant conditioning is a fancy way of saying learning things through consequences, both good and bad. (Think Skinner). For example, a dog sits and gets a treat, he learns to sit more. If he is punished for leaving the yard by an electric shock, he learns to stay away from the edge of the yard.

**Positive reinforcer: Treats. The biscuit you give to Fido for sitting is a positive reinforcer. (See Set you and your dog up for success  for ideas of how to use rewards and NILIF for more information on reinforcers). Also, know what your dog loves and use it as reward. This may include food, play, petting, access to other dogs, a car ride, etc. Make a list of 5 things your dog loves and post it on your refrigerator as a reminder of what you can use to creatively reinforce desired behaviors.

*** I have written a lot about body language and stress signals. See Stress: signals, management & warning signs for more information.

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