Training jargon

What follows are very basic definitions of the terms you’ll hear a lot about when you start to seriously train your dog. One hurdle for many people is the idea that using food rewards will not doom them to a life of ‘needing’ food rewards to get their dogs to perform certain behaviors. What they are not understanding is that by using rewards they are conditioning their dogs to behave a certain way when given a certain cue (they say ‘sit’ and the dog sits). Conditioning is very powerful and if done with enough repetition, will produce a behavior that is like a reflex.

Classical Conditioning: Think Pavlov. The bell rings and food appears. Eventually the bell rings and the dog thinks food and with time the dog’s body learns to react appropriately (drools). Even if the bell rings and no food appears, the dog will drool. Use this technique as the main technique for teaching your dog that scary things and situations mean good things (high value treats & rewards). Classical conditioning is also used to create positive associations with whatever you think is important for your dog to like (coming when called, being touched, sitting, being brushed, having their ears looked at, feet handled, being bathed, etc.).

Counter Conditioning: This is basically using classical conditioning to change your dog’s feelings or response to something it fears. You are creating positive associations and the dog begins to feel happy or excited, or calm about things that previously caused it to feel fear. It takes time and repetition.

Desensitizing: By repeatedly exposing your dog to a trigger, at an intensity which the dog does not find scary, and having nothing bad occur, your dog ultimately gets used to it. If the dog is afraid of a running vacuum cleaner you start slow and first desensitize your dog to the vacuum being in the room turned off, then you might move it around the room without turning it on. It will take many exposures for the dog to become desensitized to something. Combine counter conditioning and desensitizing.

Here is an example of how a dog can be desensitized and counter conditioned to being touched and handled.

Flooding: By forcing a dog to deal with something that scares it, you are using ‘flooding’ as a technique to try to get them to get over their fears. The problem with this is that it often doesn’t work the way you want it to. A dog may get over their fear of something, but they can instead become sensitized to the thing they fear or merely habituated to it. Even worse in my mind is that the dog looses trust in you. The best way to train a scared dog is to help it learn how to control its world without behaving in a fearful or aggressive way. Flooding teaches many scared dogs that their only way out of a bad situation is to shut down.

Habituation: You can, by exposing your dog to something enough get your dog ‘used’ to something. Dogs usually ‘habituate’ to wearing a collar for example. With a scared dog, especially one that is aggressive you want far more than just a dog that tolerates or gets used to something. A dog that tolerates something or has become habituated to it does not necessarily have a positive association with that thing.

Sensitized: A dog that is repeatedly exposed to things that scare them can also become sensitized to them. That is the risk of using flooding techniques to help a dog get over their fears. What occurs is that you get an amplification of the response from the repeated exposure to the trigger, which is the opposite of what you’re after.

Positive Reinforcement: This training technique is the one most appropriate to use with fearful dogs. You should ask any trainer you are going to use if this is how they teach. In a nutshell, you reward the behaviors you like and ignore the ones you don’t.

Behavior Modification: Modifying the dog’s behavior using positive reinforcement.

Punishment: There’s positive punishment (adding something to the situation to get your dog to stop a behavior, like pulling on their leash or yelling at them) and there’s negative punishment (taking away something to get your dog to stop a behavior). My feeling (and I’m not alone I’m sure) is that punishment as we usually think of it (positive punishment) should not be used with a fearful dog. They either don’t understand why it’s happening and worse, they associate the punishment with something you’d rather they didn’t.

It’s always better to show your dog what you want it to do, rather than just stopping the behavior you don’t like. Most dogs want to learn what it is we want them to do and struggle at it. The least we can do is give them a few clues. If your dog lunges and barks at a passing dog, instead of yanking on their leash and shouting ‘no!’, you could get your dog to sit and give it a reward letting it know that sitting is the behavior you want when a dog goes by.

If by behaving a certain way, sitting nicely by your side for example, causes something that your dog doesn’t like, to happen, there is no reason to think that your dog is going to want to repeat that behavior. People do this sort of thing with their scared or aggressive dogs all the time. Rover sits quietly while the scary child comes up and pats his head. It makes sense to us in that we think that the dog is going learn that, ‘hey that wasn’t so bad’ and with some dogs that may be the case. There are some kids that after taking ‘just one bite please’ of brussel sprouts respond with, ‘”YUM, more please, ” but more often than not they scrunch up their face and struggle to swallow or spit it out. When your dog is being asked to interact with something that scares him and performs in a calm way, reward that behavior not only with treats but by not ‘punishing’ your dog by letting the scary thing any closer to him. Don’t trust that your dog is going to love brussel sprouts.

I used negative punishment with Sunny when he got territorial about a bone or rawhide with the other dogs. I took it away. I didn’t mind him telling the other dogs to keep away from him (with a hard stare or soft growl) but he was not allowed to attack them. He has now learned that the other dogs are not going to try and take his treats anyway, they just like to see what everybody else has (and if a treat is left behind, well then it’s fair game).