Don’t train behaviour but work on the emotion behind it instead!

Feb 21, 2017 |

“What do you teach dogs in your classes?” – a question I get asked rather a lot. Usually, the intro talk into what one should work on with a new pup takes me about an hour and a half with the new clients during our 1-2-1 session. And it is only an intro on what we are going to be doing with that dog for the next few weeks/months. I do feel rude not wanting to answer the query fully each time and wish I just had the time and opportunity to say to them: “Well, here’s how we start. Every dog’s behaviour is always goal-orientated, so when working out the “what and why”, we want to teach you the way dogs think.

Erratically trying to investigate the world around them, pups very quickly figure out for themselves what to do in order to get something and somewhere. If they succeed, they do it again, and if it fails, they keep away from it. These are your main principles of Operant Conditioning / the learning process. So the good home/trainer/handler would be the one providing that pup with the endless list of opportunities to figure it all out and guide their students through the process attempting just to control the outcomes / consequences of those actions. We call it learning, but humans are not very good at providing it by themselves. We need Nature’s help, as our instincts are usually dimmed by the time we get to our dog training years, but the dogs’ learning mechanisms stay sharp all throughout their lives. So we employ their cooperation and help as much as we can in order to succeed. And so this is where we start…”

Well, you see now that the curriculum is not that easily explained, and I’d also want to list the methods, techniques, policies and affiliations our School holds, training plans and secrets, progress tests and advances in those sessions, changing from week to week, and progressing with the dog’s development.

Instead I usually invite the prospective students to observe the classes for themselves, with or without a dog, so that they get an idea of what we do and why we are different from other clubs. And some never show up, as all they wanted to hear is that we would help them to teach their pooches how to come back, sit and wait. And I understand that, but would really, really like to warn everyone embarking on this journey, and stop them from making a big mistake with their dogs – however young and whatever the behaviour they are trying to change is.

So please spare a minute reading this and spread the word, I hope that this will save many innocent lives and make many more training stories into happy, successful ones.

We all tend to want to teach various behaviours. How we do it with the “sit”, “lay down” and stay” – seems to be the battlefield of dog training experts from different views and fields of doggy science and different countries. Clever ones call it “Reflex”, or “Conditioned Behavioural Response” (CBR) and this is correct. CBR can help any dog to manage a situation of not running into the road when being recalled from a squirrel chase or dealing with a group of school children passing by being put into a sit. An obedient dog is an easy dog to live with, no doubt. And most unsuspecting owners would take their hounds to a local training club for this very reason. And fail. It is sad, but the facts are such, that not everyone manages to override the tendency of a puppy to get scared of a tall approaching stranger or a desire to pounce on a dog next to them. They do (well, most often)  know how to walk away and stay out of trouble, but they just cannot – there is a stronger mechanism inside of them that controls their brains and tells them to follow the “call of nature”. It isn’t easy to “down and stay” when a dog walks pass, or “come here” when a pair of kids are kicking a ball about next to an unsettled youngster pup.
“But I spent months teaching him to come away from trouble…” would be an irritated comment from a person on the other end of a leash. True, you taught your Rover that he should plod along next to you when asked to “heel” and let go of that stick after a command “No”.
Who questions what he feels when there’s a commotion in a park, or a bird taking off nearby? How does he adjust to the fright of an exhaust blowing in the distance or a “mum” walking away leaving him in charge of the son? This, I’m afraid, is way more important than those weeks and weeks you spend at a training club drilling the “heel” and “leave it!” into your puppy’s head. You will react if you feel startled, scared or spooked. You will follow your sense of curiosity when you feel excited or intrigued by something. Don’t you know any better? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t bother you at the time. Priorities are not something that guide us through life, and sensible choices are not the only thing that we pick, right? Same goes for our canines. And I’d like to plea for a different approach when it comes to dog training.

Let’s talk about CER – Conditioned Emotional Response vs Taught Behaviour as the main target, or the aim of our training, or, otherwise, “behaviour modification” efforts.

An emotion we would like to talk about is the one that can be paired with unconditioned response / stimulus; the reward that a dog would appreciate coming together with an unconditional motivator and as a result would form an association between an irrelevant or meaning-less event with the relevant, important factor for the dog in question. This in turn makes the importance of the formerly uninteresting and irrelevant situation / event / object stand out as one of particular importance / value and therefore not to be ignored. Anything paired with a follow-through event is likely to become a cue for a particular behaviour. “Like for like” means that positive stimuli leads to forming a happy association and vice versa. Give me a doughnut every time I do my morning stretching and I’d do it forever… I wish… (We, humans, override the overriding mechanism of universal order due to our illogical nature)

A dog is frightened of other dogs and acts out of fear or discomfort around them. He/she either bolts or strikes first trying to ease the situation. And it works – the perpetrator is out of the equation and peace is once again restored. Same thing happens again a few times, and you have a taught behaviour, reflex if you like. So the owners are trying to “socialise” the dog by taking it to more and more classes, but the dog gets snappier and angrier the more they do it, however hard they try. And now you are seeing it the way we do it here. The whole situation is not making that dog feel any better unless it initiates the trouble, and only then he would be taken aside or the other dogs would leave him alone. Simple response to an emotional unease. But if the owners actually realise their mistake, they’d start focusing their efforts on making that dog FEEL good about the affair, and therefore change its’ perception of the threat. A motorbike goes by – a piece of garlic sausage, a balloon is blown in the vicinity – a slice of cheese. On and on, without many gaps in between – this makes it easier to connect those random events and work out the sequence. Pavlovian reaction springs to mind – “a bell sounds and the dog begins to salivate”. This is the same very thing, as the theory is impeccable! Bike-sausage, bike-sausage, bike-“mum, where’s my sausage?” Not scared any more, not willing to run (who would run from a salami slice on offer, for doing nothing?)

And we don’t even have to wait for the response in order to produce that reward / positive stimulus. Feed your Scooby irrespectively of his behaviour around other animals and his reaction to them would soon become predictable. Most vicious dogs visiting our group session within a few visits change their attitude towards the dogs in the class due to being overwhelmed with the amount of the good stuff that happens there. They can’t wait to come and meet the hounds there naturally feeling that it was one of the happiest places to be. Classical Conditioning in action.

Now please consider this argument when advised to “Jerk” your dog’s leash when he lunges at another dog, tighten his check-collar when approached by an over-friendly puppy or pin the dog down when he barks at a sight of a competitor. How much better would he / she feel towards that dog next time they meet? Hence the appropriate reaction. Yes, this is like digging yourself a big hole instead of something that should be built, reinforced there.

This is the message I’d like to share with all of those owners deciding to “plant the seeds” in the field of good behaviour crop, concentrate on CER. A happy dog would socialise easily, anticipating a good time makes the most vicious animal want to be amongst other dogs, and looking out for goodies makes mixing with other dogs a fun, exciting experience. It is the endorphins* (The Big Daddies of the Happiness Chemicals) infused response, where a happy, thrilled dog becomes less anxious or aggressive just as result of the happy hormones flashing through it’s blood, just like it is being drugged or doped if you wish. Miserable comparison, but rather accurate I’m afraid. So – pair the stimuli with the situation and work out the FEEL rather than the behaviour, and you would be amazed by how easy it is to get that dog back if it chases other pups waiting for the “lucky chance” command to return to handler. Don’t “flood” your dog when attempting to socialise it with other animals but instead teach it to look forward to the outcomes of it, stuff it full of good stuff by strangers approaching, passing by and wanting to stroke your dog – and you will have an outgoing, willing to stretch it’s boundaries, dog who wants to be taught more, much more by you. And enjoy the rewards yourself- isn’t it fabulous seeing your dog jumping in excitement when facing the prospect of meeting a … (formerly known as scary factor).

OK, one more thing. “My dog is not a foodie!” – is not a valid argument. Yah, if your Lassie is not accepting bribes when out and about – you are stuffed! But the problem with that dog is… the owner! Learn to distribute rewards so that the dog appreciates them as there’s just no such thing as a dog “not into food”. Unless they suddenly learn to self-provide, or even better, photosynthesise!

This is the Power of Reward for you as a tool to establishing the right CER – Conditioned Emotional Response. Other theories, such as counter-conditioning, desensitising, inhibition and habituation would follow this neatly and beautifully as all are based on the same principle.
“Thank you, caller, for your time and for giving me the opportunity to make it clear for your dog’s sake, as I wouldn’t want to tell you any less about what we do in our Handfeeding classes.


* Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are part of a group of chemicals that naturally exist in the brain and help to alleviate pain and elevate a person’s mood and spirit – very much like Opioids, thus being what we call endogenous opioidpeptides. They are neurotransmitters usually defined as neuromodulators – chemicals that change the activity of the postsynaptic cells and/or regulate it.
These chemicals are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during physical activity, sexual activity, joy, pain, laughter, massage and even during sleep. It is also well established that eating chocolate causes release of endorphins.
The Endorphins play an important role in controlling emotional behaviours such as anxiety, fear, pleasure and pain.
Drugs such as opium and morphine attach to the same receptors as the Endorphins. Some people call Endorphins the “Keys to Heaven” because of their ability to enable control over pleasure and pain.

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