The other day I had an adorable little family in class with their equally adorable 12-week-old puppy, a gun dog. The parents had owned dogs before, but it had been over 15 years since they had a puppy, and now they had come across our book “Retrieving for All Occasions” and thought our training method seemed exciting and good, and they wanted to learn more.
“This is not how we trained 20 years ago, so it feels very new but fun and a little challenging,” they said.
Before we did any exercises with the puppy, we went through what clicker training is in practice, and the daughter (who was a young adult) said that she found it very troublesome that the puppy hung on her pants leg all the time.
“But what should I do if I’m not allowed to say no?” she asked.
I love her question! It hits the nail on the head if you want to train without aversives – i.e., things that induce discomfort or unpleasantness in the dog – but don’t actually know how to do it.
Because, of course, there is no rule that you are not “allowed” to say “no” to your dog, and what she really meant was, “What should I do if I don’t WANT to correct in a way that is uncomfortable?”
Sometimes, I think those of us who work “reward-based” or are “clicker trainers” or don’t want to “work with aversives” or don’t want to “use punishment that the dog perceives as unpleasant” miss a bit in pedagogy. It is so obvious to us that there are alternatives that we forget that it can be almost incomprehensible for someone who has trained more traditionally (i.e., a mix of rewards and punishment). It can certainly be a challenge when you have to change your mindset about training a dog, all respect to you who are trying.
So what did I answer? I gave several alternatives, and to try to be very pedagogical and clear, I list them here:
- If you focus on what you want the dog to do instead, what is that? Can you reward – that is, train the dog to do – that behavior and thereby avoid the unwanted behavior breaking out? For example, if you often reward when the puppy sits in front of you and makes eye contact, it may mean that the puppy chooses to sit and make contact when it comes up instead of throwing itself at your pants.
- Can you prevent the unwanted behavior from occuring in some other way? For example, maybe this behavior occurs especially when the puppy is over-tired or a little over-excited. When you see that “ooops, now it’s about to happen,” can you give it a food toy, a small chew bone, or something that allows it to use its energy for something other than hanging on your pants?
- When the unwanted behavior has broken out anyway – can you interrupt it in a way that doesn’t reinforce the dog? For example, as calmly as possible, lift the puppy into its puppy pen and give it something it likes to chew on, instead of your pants? Then you remove yourself so that you are outside the puppy pen, so there is no opportunity to train hanging on your pants.
These three questions can be summarized in our training motto: TRAIN, PREVENT, INTERRUPT*.
When a problem of any kind arises, this is how you can think if you don’t want to correct the dog in a way that it finds uncomfortable: You train/reward the behaviors you want instead of focusing on correcting the ones you don’t want. At the same time, you prevent the puppy from self-rewarding with the behavior you don’t want. (Note! It’s very important that the dog doesn’t self-reward because it learns that way too). You interrupt the dog if it still “goes wrong”. Then you do some stump training – which means you sit on a stump and think about how to achieve what you want, and make a plan for that training. 🙂
“But does it always have to be uncomfortable when I say no?” someone might wonder now. Absolutely not. Many people I know teach their dogs that “no” means “stop what you’re doing now and come here, I have a better alternative.” If a “no” – or any other word – is trained with the consequence that it becomes uncomfortable after the word, of course, you will get a completely different feeling from the dog.
And then we come to another crucial point in our training: namely, that it becomes a completely different feeling for the dog if it does things BECAUSE IT KNOWS IT’S NOT ALLOWED rather than because it pays off. And that feeling often rubs off on the behavior. You get secure behaviors and a dog full of self-confidence and joy – and what could be called an “obedient dog” – when the dog knows it pays off to do what you ask it to do.
In summary: If you want to train without aversives, think TRAIN, PREVENT, INTERRUPT. Focus on what you want to teach the dog – search for the right – instead of what you don’t want to teach it – search for the wrong – so it’s easier not to get stuck in old ways of thinking about correcting mistakes. It can be a way to “retrain your own thinking”.
So how did it go for the family with the adorable puppy? Excellent! “I feel a bit dizzy and like a beginner again when I have to think differently,” said the mother happily but could leave the lesson with several new tools and a puppy who had easily and effortlessly learned some new things.
I know exactly how it feels! I was there exactly 20 years ago and felt clumsy and slow-thinking. But I don’t regret starting to think and do differently in my training. Now I hardly know how I would do it if I thought in a different way.
PS: And if you right now have a puppy at home who likes to hang on our pants legs 😉, just try to get through that phase – because it’s passing if you don’t give it too much attention – just as I described … DS.
*We describe this way of thinking and training in our book “Retrieving for All Occasions“