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Becoming a Positive Reinforcement Dog Trainer

 
Have you ever watched a video (or even a live presentation) of a “new” method and felt your world rock? There are lots of gurus in the dog training world; people who have a new training system that will make your life easier, and your animal training a breeze. That’s one of the key goals in becoming a positive reinforcement dog trainer.

The truth is, there is no new method out there. Every method that’s out there (at least, that I’ve seen) can be explained through basic learning theory. When you hear a trainer talk about a revolutionary new method of training, be wary! You can get that same information for a lot less money, and probably a lot less wear and tear on your animal, by just understanding basic learning theory.

Here are a few examples:

  • Watch Me – positive reinforcement
  • BAT – negative reinforcement
  • Clicker Training (as a philosophy) – positive reinforcement
  • LAT (Look at That) – positive reinforcement
  • The Horse Whisperer – negative punishment, some negative reinforcement
  • Natural Dog Training – positive reinforcement
  • Parelli – negative reinforcement
  • Syn Alia – hard to tell, probably negative reinforcement

You’ll notice that almost all of these (with one exception) are either negative or positive reinforcement. That makes sense, because the goal is to increase behavior, rather than reduce it.

Often, there is really good information to be had by watching and listening to these experienced trainers; so, we don’t want to dismiss them out of hand. For instance, in “Watch Me,” Patricia McConnell introduces the idea of an autowatch. Again, there’s nothing new about this – it’s simply a conditioned stimulus for a particular behavior – but, it’s a very useful concept in dog training. However, the method and how the animal is learning is not new.

In the process of becoming a positive reinforcement dog trainer, it’s very important to understand what is going on when watching another trainer. BAT is a great example of this. It seems very gentle, and there’s a lot of discussion about letting the animal decide. This all sounds really great; however, it’s still negative reinforcement, which is an aversive. I want to clarify that I have no problem with BAT, and I think trainers should have this tool in their toolbox. But it should not be the first option – Watch Me is very similar and is positive reinforcement, so should be the first choice. If, for some reason, Watch Me doesn’t work, then pull BAT out of your toolbox.

I recommend watching dog training videos with the sound off. That allows you to ignore what the instructor is saying, and actually watch what is happening. Of course, you must first have a good grounding in learning theory, or you won’t have the knowledge you need to identify specific techniques.

If you find this information intriguing, I will be presenting a webinar on this topic. We’ll view videos of various “systems” and analyze them. You’ll be surprised at what you learn! For more information on this webinar, go to Method Comparison – a Critical Look at 7 Different Methods for Fear-Based Aggression

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year. Sue also owns East Valley Dog Training in the San Tan Valley of Arizona.

Professional Dog Trainers: Learning Theory

 
Understanding how animals learn is a helpful tool for professional dog trainers

Let me count the ways. No matter what field you’re in, the more you know, the better you are. Knowledge is a powerful tool and gives its possessor a leg up on the competition. If you want to increase your dog trainer salary, you should be studying dog behavior and how animals learn. There are many ways to do this – conferences, weekend seminars, on-line dog trainer courses, webinars, books, magazines . . .

Understanding learning theory also helps understand behavior

Learning theory is our scientific understanding of how animals learn. This includes overriding concepts such as Thorndike’s Law of Effect (a response that produces a desirable effect is more likely to occur again in that situation, and a response that produce an undesirable effect is less likely to occur again in that situation), and deeper-dive concepts such as how to shape behavior and the advantages and possible pitfalls of doing so (resurgence, small criteria increases, contiguity of reinforcement, high ROR, etc.).

However, for professional animal trainers, just the simple act of studying learning theory also requires us to study behavior, because the two intersect. For instance, learning theory teaches us that behavior must be reinforced if it is going to be maintained. That leads us to look at a behavior problem and wonder what is maintaining that behavior – what’s the motivation/reinforcement? Learning theory allows us to be more systematic in our study of behavior and rely less on traditional lore and supposition, and actually identify the root causes of the behavior.

When you don’t know why the animal you’re training isn’t responding to your protocol, you can go back to the basics (because you know the basics!)

Learning theory also teaches us why behavior happens and what must be present for behavior to happen. So, when we’re stuck, we can go back to the basics: timing, motivation, criteria, rate of reinforcement. These are the basics, and if behavior isn’t changing when a protocol has been implemented, it’s going to be one or more of these factors. Of course, we can dig much deeper into each of these categories, as well – for instance, professional dog trainers might discuss generalization, but that’s really a function of criteria. Regardless, knowing these rules and principles can only help us.

When a client asks you a “Why does my dog . . .?) question, you’ll be able to speak with authority – even if you don’t know why

When you can speak knowledgeably on behavior, learning, and training, when you don’t know the answer to something you can say so and maintain your credibility. You can also tell your client that you don’t know the answer, but your best guess is . . . I write an “Ask the Trainer” column for my small local paper. Someone asked me why her pug likes to sleep under the covers. Well, I don’t know! It could be any number of reasons. But, I was able to put forth some ideas – one had to do with the breeding and another with the practical aspect of comfort.

When challenged with an outdated idea or training model, you can speak with authority on why it’s outdated

Although our industry has come a long way in the last twenty to thirty years, it will be a long time before people get the idea of “dominance” out of their heads. When we are challenged by a client, a competitor, or possibly a veterinarian, we can give logical, science-based reasons for dominance not being a valid behavioral model. There are many other strange ideas out there as well, and understanding how animals learn and why they behave as they do can only help us.

It increases your credibility with potential clients and veterinarians

Similar to the topic of clients asking you a question about their animal’s behavior, having good knowledge at the ready increases your credibility. Remember that veterinarians are scientists, at heart. They like information to be based on science, and understand that model.

You can carry on intelligent discourse with your peers

More and more trainers are becoming familiar with how animals learn – some have a deep knowledge, some have a rudimentary knowledge, but they have knowledge. Understanding the terminology and the concepts helps us discuss behavior problems with our peers in a productive way. We’re all on the same page with language and understanding, and our discussions become streamlined and efficient. I highly encourage those wanting to become a dog trainer to get started on the right path and study how animals learn.

It’s fun!

Not everyone will agree with this statement, but I think it’s fun, so I’m sticking’ with it!

At the end of August, I will be presenting a webinar called Understanding Learning Theory. This is a great course for beginners, those getting ready to sit for the CPDT-KA exam, or as a refresher for those who need it. For more information on this course, go to https://www.raisingcanine.com/course/understanding-learning-theory/. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year. Sue also owns East Valley Dog Training in the San Tan Valley of Arizona.

Dog Trainer Expectations

 
A lot of dog trainers get very frustrated when their clients don’t complete training. Within the training community, we hear a lot of venting about a lack of commitment, owners wanting a quick fix, or a wave of a magic wand. I do understand that this seeming lack of commitment can be very frustrating to trainers, (as well as affect our dog trainer salary), but I have some thoughts on the topic I’d like to share. I’d love to hear back from trainers about what they think.

So, let’s start with the basics – what is a dog trainer, exactly? A dog trainer is a consultant – we consult on behavior and behavior problems. The definition of a consultant is “a person who provides expert advice, professionally.” But I think a better definition is “a person who provides expert advice professionally, but has no control over the outcome.” I think this is a better definition, because all we can do is determine the problem, give our best advice on how to resolve it, and hope our client agrees with us.

I actually think the biggest reason owners don’t go as far with training as we think they should is because our expectations are too high and they consider the problem fixed before we do.

Let’s start with dog trainer expectations. We like to train, we think training is fun and worthwhile. That’s why we’re trainers. Owners, on the other hand, don’t particularly like to train. Owners simply want a well-behaved family member, and sometimes need help accomplishing that. These are adult learners, and adult learners generally have a very specific goal in mind. Once that goal has been accomplished, they see no reason to continue – they have better things to do with their time and money.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to talk about a client I had a few weeks ago. These are nice people with two small dogs that they adore. They’ve recently moved from a suburban situation with a fenced back yard to a rural area where they are building a house. They have a business and are living in a large room within that business while their new house is being built. When they first moved, they let the dogs out off-leash, and one of them was attacked by a coyote.

The veterinarian referred them to me, and we decided to work on the following issues:

  • Recall
  • Desensitization to harness & leash
  • Housetraining for one dog

Prior to the move, the dogs didn’t go out, so they weren’t used to wearing a harness and leash, although they had worn them years earlier. One of the dogs was not house-trained, so we decided to work on that, since they were moving into a new house. And, of course, the recall was important because of the living situation.

My main goal for our first session was to get some management in place so the dogs would be safe during the training process. Once I arrived, I realized that they did have a small, fenced area which their exit door opened onto, so that really solved the problem of the dogs having to go outside the safe area to potty. We spent an hour discussing basics – free-feeding, house-training, how to get the dogs used to their harnesses, and how to potty the dogs until they were reliable.

After a couple of days, I texted them to see how things were going and if they had any questions. The text I received in return. The wife then called me and said things were going great. The dogs had adjusted to their harnesses almost immediately, so they were today able to walk them on-leash; they were working on house-training the smaller dog (I left them with a handout, so they pretty much had what they needed); and they were either walking the dogs on-leash or letting them out into the fenced area. And, they didn’t really have time to train, as their schedules were already over-loaded running their business and building a house, but they’d call me once the house was done.

I don’t really expect to hear from them, but that’s okay because the truth is, their problem is solved. Would I have like to work on other issues, such as the recall? Sure. But again, once that house is built, they’ll have a big, fenced yard that is coyote-proofed, and they probably won’t leave it except for occasional vet visits.

So ultimately, I consider this a successful consultation. They don’t want to do everything I recommended, but their problem is solved to their satisfaction, and that’s my job!

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year. Sue also owns East Valley Dog Training in the San Tan Valley of Arizona.

Online Dog Trainer Course: Types of Learning

 
This gets a little in the weeds, but as professionals, we do need to understand the different types of learning and which ones the animals we work with best learn by. Since this website is primarily for dog trainers, this article will be discussing dogs and how they learn. After I started writing this article, it occurred to me that it would be a great topic for a short online dog trainer course, so I’m doing a FREE webinar on July 17, on types of learning. This article will give you an overview, but we’ll look at video and discuss the types of learning in more depth during the  course.

The two types of learning we, as trainers, use most are respondent and classical learning. Because there is so much to these two topics, and they are so crucial to our industry, I’m going to be very brief in this article, but I will do an in-depth article or dog trainer course online for each of these types of learning.

RESPONDENT LEARNING

Respondent learning is also known as either classical or Pavlovian learning, and this phenomenon was discovered and studied by Ivan Pavlov around the turn of the twentieth century and, in fact, he won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine in 1904 for his research.

Respondent learning deals with conditioned responses. Conditioned responses are when a stimulus (such as a clicker) evokes the same physiological response as an unconditioned stimulus (such as food). The animal has made an association between the two events, and the conditioned stimulus predicts the unconditioned stimulus.

Of course, there is much more to respondent learning, but this is it in a nutshell. And, as promised, I will do another presentation on this topic in more depth. The thing to remember is that ALL learning has its foundation in respondent learning. When you teach a dog to sit, he’s making an association between the cue and the behavior, and the behavior and the consequence—the association is classical learning.

OPERANT LEARNING

As with respondent learning, probably most of what we do revolves around operant learning. The name comes from the idea that the animal is “operating” on his environment. The main difference from respondent learning is that the animal chooses his response—i.e., he chooses whether or not to sit when he hears the cue, he chooses whether or not to chase a squirrel in the park. So an example of operant learning is the dog perceives a stimulus/antecedent (such as the lid comes off the dog food bin), he decides on a behavior (to come into the kitchen—although he could equally decide not to come into the kitchen), and there will be a consequence of his decision (if he comes into the kitchen, he’ll be closer to his food when it’s ready—if he decides not to come into the kitchen, it will take him longer to eat).

As you can see, there is the potential for a lot of different outcomes to this scenario. Most dogs are pretty food motivated and a lot of their life revolves around meal time. However, if the dog isn’t hungry (motivation), he may decide it’s not worth the effort to get up from his cozy bed and walk into the kitchen.

Again, I’ll do an article or trainer course online where we can discuss this in much more depth.

SOCIAL FACILITATION

Social facilitation is when an animal is motivated to perform at a higher level because someone else is doing that behavior. Dogs learn very well through social facilitation. Say two dogs are barking at a squirrel. If it were just one dog, he would probably stop barking after the squirrel was out of sight; however, because of the second dog, they continue to bark, even though the squirrel is gone.

Often, lay people see dogs doing something another dog is doing and attribute it to imitation of observational learning (see below), but there’s little evidence that dogs learn through those means. Usually, it is social facilitation or local enhancement (see below).

Much of the research in social facilitation revolves around humans and sports. For instance, one of the early studies (by Norman Triplett) showed that cyclists racing against another cyclist performed better than when racing against a clock.

LOCAL ENHANCEMENT

Local enhancement is similar to social facilitation in that there are two animals involved in the behavior. However, in local enhancement, dog A perceives dog B doing something (barking, digging, etc.), and dog A decides to do it, as well. So the difference here is that had dog B not been barking, dog A probably would never have started barking. As trainers we often hear about a family dog who never barked until a new dog was brought into the household and “taught” the original dog to bark.

TASTE AVERSION LEARNING

Taste aversion learning is interesting because it is the one type of learning that can have a significant period of time elapse between the behavior and the consequence. Of course, this is an obvious survival response—if you eat something that makes you sick, you don’t want to continue eating it!

SINGLE EVENT LEARNING

Single event learning is when it takes only one trial for an animal to learn something. Usually, this involves fear or some kind of aversive event. It happens once, and the animal remembers it.

IMITATION

In imitation, you copy another’s actions precisely and learn from that. There is little evidence that dogs learn from imitation, however there is a great deal of research happening which may result in a different opinion. Some examples of imitation might be formal dancing, children learning to tie their shoelaces, etc. Often, people confuse imitation with social facilitation or local enhancement.

VICARIOUS/OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING

In vicarious learning, you learn from watching another and the consequences that result from their behavior. If you watch your little sister steal a cookie from the cookie jar and your mother gives her a spanking, you are less likely to steal cookies from the cookie jar.

There are other ways of learning, but these are the most relevant to dog training. If you’d like to attend the FREE dog trainer course I’ll be holding online in July, click here.

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, which provides online education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year. Sue also owns East Valley Dog Training in the San Tan Valley of Arizona.

Courses For Dog Trainers: Nature vs. Nurture

 
Ah, the age old question “Which has more influence over our behavior? Nature or nurture?” And, of course the answer has gone back and forth like a ping pong ball for decades. Fortunately, today there are enough good courses for dog trainers which address this question so that we don’t have to continue to debate the issue. The real answer is that the two are inseparable.

What it really boils down to is, you can’t do something if you are not genetically capable of doing it – i.e., pigs can’t fly – and you won’t do something you’re genetically capable of doing unless there’s an environmental stimulus – i.e., blink your eyes. Of course there are various bodily functions such as heart beats, that don’t need a stimulus in the way we think of them, and there are others, such as pupil dilation, that do need an environmental stimulus. But for most behavior – particularly the behavior professional dog trainers deal with – we need some kind of a stimulus and that stimulus usually comes from the environment.

In developing effective courses for dog trainers, an important question needs to be answered. How do nature and nurture affect us as professionals, particularly when using positive dog training techniques where you don’t just force the dog to do what you want? This is a very important concept for those just learning to become a professional dog trainer, as well as those who have been at it for a while. So let’s explore the question in more depth.

(I want to preface this section by saying that there is a lot of new understanding about genetics and heritability which may refute some of what I’m about to say. I am not a geneticist, so my knowledge is pretty basic.)

The ability to learn is genetic. But what we learn is not heritable. So we can be born with an ability to learn certain things, and every species is more susceptible to learning certain types of things. For instance, a horse is more likely to learn to be afraid of a snake than of a boulder – because a snake is more dangerous to the horse. A grizzly bear is likely to take to the water and learn to fish more easily than a camel – because a good portion of a grizzly’s diet is fish, and none of a camel’s diet is fish (not to mention there’s not a whole lot of water in camel territory).

So, as animal trainers, we need to take into account what the animal is designed to do – and this is a function of nature. Dogs, in particular, have been bred for certain traits which do affect their behavior. For instance, Corgis tend to nip at people’s heels, herd children, and bark, because this is what they were bred to do. Corgis were bred to herd cattle and sheep by nipping at their legs. Their barking probably helped herd the animals and also alerted shepherds to potential problems.

Not all breeds act like Corgis – for instance, most terriers love to dig, grab, and shake. For the most part, terriers were used to keep the vermin population down. Many vermin live in the earth, so terriers became diggers – in fact, the word “terrier” derives from the Greek work “terra” which means earth. Also, their job was to catch and kill said vermin, so they love to grab and shake.

And even other herding dogs don’t act exactly like Corgis. Although there will be some overlap in behavioral motor patterns between all herding dogs, such as controlling others’ movement, each breed has a specialty, almost always based on the terrain in which they work. For instance, Border Collies are famous for their “eye,” which helps to control the sheep they are herding.

These examples illustrate the great behavioral differences between dogs, brought about by selective breeding. Although most other animals are not as selectively bred as dogs, there are some domestic animals that are – such as horses. If you’re a horse person, you’ll be aware of behavioral differences between horse breeds.

But even with all this genetic influence, nurture still plays a big role in behavior. Corgi’s need something to bark at – even if it’s just a leaf falling from a tree. And terriers need something to grab and shake – which is why they love squeaky toys!

We can certainly teach Corgis not to bark, and terriers not to shake. The question is, should we? These are natural behaviors that need an outlet and these behaviors can be quite problematic for dogs living with humans. In fact, if there is no outlet for these behaviors, you may see behavioral problems develop in other areas, such as obsessive compulsive disorders.

With the advent of positive dog training methods and the many courses for dog trainers now available, we’re learning how to provide our dogs with an outlet for these normal behaviors without disrupting our human households. There are toys and activities to address almost every natural need of our domesticated dogs.

So, to put it all in a nutshell, nature is what allows a species to survive. A species adapts to their environment through natural selection and/or mutation. These adaptations should help them find a niche within their environment that hasn’t yet been filled by another species, or is plentiful enough that it can be shared. If the adaptation benefits the species, those individuals who have adapted the best will live to produce offspring with that beneficial adaptation, and those who have not adapted will either die off or find a different niche to adapt to. In other words, natural selection.

Nurture, on the other hand, is how an individual survives. Nurture is the environment we live in, and we all have to learn to survive within our environment. This type of learning is not passed on to our offspring through genetics; however, assuming the parents survive, they can then pass this knowledge on to their offspring through teaching. We’ve all seen animals teaching their young – any species that stays with their young for any length of time will help the offspring to survive, thus giving them the ability to procreate and pass their knowledge to their offspring. And so on.

For those animals who do not stay with their parents once born, it’s probably a bit of a crap shoot, but the ones with the best genetics for the environment – which includes the ability to learn – will survive.

For on-demand courses for dog trainers on this topic, go to the following links: Understanding Learning Theory or Motor Patterns, Drives, Instincts, & Fixed Action Patterns: Important considerations when choosing and training a dog

 Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, (www.raisingcanine.com), which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year.

Online Dog Training Courses

Raising Canine was the first business in the industry to start offering online dog training courses to professional dog and animal trainers. We led the way, starting back in 2005 with great speakers like Jean Donaldson, Dr. Lore Haug, and Dr. Ian Dunbar presenting for us. Although there are many training courses for dogs being provided today, Raising Canine prides ourselves on being the first, and going through the growing pains of educating people on exactly what on-line education was and how to use it! Looking back, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. I remember doing “telecourses” over the phone on a conference call provider, and recording the courses with my little digital recorder hooked up to my phone with a complex system of cords and phone hook-ups—which was itself cutting edge technology!

Fourteen years later, we’re still going strong and have evolved, along with technology, using the great webinar platforms available to record great, current information which helps dog trainers, paraprofessionals, and owners stay abreast of current information. We still have great speakers, some who’ve been around since the beginning, like Dr. Lore Haug, and others who are new to our “stable” of speakers like Michael Shikashio and Barbara Davis.

Although many of you attend Raising Canine’s live webinars, it’s a bit of an open secret that most of those courses are recorded and become online dog training courses, available on-demand. This means that you are able to watch these valuable webinars at your leisure. If you work a regular job or train during the day, you can still listen to these courses as you’re driving from appointment to appointment, during your lunch hour, or on the weekend, during your spare time.

These courses are relatively short—most lasting for just 1½ hours, but still packed with great information—inexpensive, and very convenient. Most qualify for continuing education units (CEUs), for those of you who are certified. There are also many courses for novice trainers, paraprofessionals, and owners.

It’s also very simple to access these online dog training courses. Just go to our website, www.raisingcanine.com and on the home page, you have several options. The first is the drop-down menu “Webinars” which gives you all the education options Raising Canine offers. Below that, in the middle of the page, are various icons, including one for on-demand webinars and one for upcoming live webinars. Finally, over to the right is a search button. This search button allows you to search for webinars by name, speaker, topic, or CEUs.

We also offer other types of dog training videos, usually longer in length and more in-depth. You can find those under the drop down menu, as well.

So, don’t feel you have to be available for the live webinar to avail yourself of our great educational opportunities. If you sign up for an upcoming live webinar and are unable to attend, within a day or two after the live webinar is presented, you’ll get an e-mail with the access info for the recorded version. No more excuses! Listen, learn, improve, and have fun debating concepts with your trainer friends.

To find our great webinars, go to www.raisingcanine.com/education and start learning!

Positive Dog Training: Is Extinction Effective?

As positive dog training experts, when we get called in to help owners with their dogs, it’s almost always to get rid of behavior that has already been happening and is now a big enough problem they’ve decided to call for help. This can include anything from jumping up to aggression. Of course, the problem with behaviors that have been happening for a while is that they’ve got a solid history of reinforcement behind them, making them much harder to deal with.

Many trainers recommend extinction for annoying behaviors that require reinforcement from the owners, such as jumping up and barking. But just how effective is extinction? Theoretically, it works great. Simply withhold the reinforcement that has previously maintained the behavior. Simple, right?

Not so much, in practice. Owners have to be “on guard” at all times to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behavior. If they accidentally reinforce the behavior, it’ll come back stronger than ever, which often makes them think the behavior is getting worse. It’s very hard to ignore an annoying behavior—and I speak from experience!

I once tried to extinguish my dog’s scratching-at-the-door-to-be-let-in behavior. What a disaster. I’d do really well for a while, then something would happen—I’d be on the phone, talking to someone, doing something—and I’d end up letting him in. And most importantly, I totally understood the science behind extinction—I knew about extinction bursts, spontaneous recovery, resurgence, the importance of consistency, and on, and on, and on. I knew what I needed to know and I still couldn’t do it.

That experience made me start thinking about owners trying to extinguish behavior. If it was that hard for me, how hard must it be for an owner who doesn’t have the depth of knowledge I have, or even just the normal desire to modify behavior that most positive dog training experts have? Probably close to impossible for them. So, that was my turning point in moving from using extinction to straight differential reinforcement with great timing.

Now, having said all that, it’s still very important for trainers to understand extinction because extinction affects behavior in more subtle ways – such as when we raise criteria. So, extinction isn’t all bad – just not a great way for owners to modify behavior.

Dog Training Programs: Business & Marketing

One of the things I’ve noticed in my business, which provides continuing education to professional dog trainers, is that of all the dog training programs I provide, most trainers go for the sexy topics: aggression, separation anxiety, extreme fear and under-socialization. And, of course it is important for trainers to understand and be able to work with these problems, but it’s equally important to know how to run a successful business. But that’s just not a sexy topic!

Sexy or not, the reality is that the vast majority of professional dog trainers will be self-employed. There are some opportunities for employment, but the chances of ever making serious money and being able to train what and how you want will be severely limited when working for someone else.

If you work full time for one of the big chain pet stores, you’ll probably work for low wages and be expected to also work the floor, selling product – often product you don’t want to sell, such as electronic training collars. But let’s face it – those stores are in business to make money, and they make a lot more money selling an e-collar than a clicker!

You can work for another independent trainer, but most of these trainers can’t afford to hire a trainer full time, give them good wages, and provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement. It’s not that they don’t want to, but it’s hard (possibly because they don’t know how to run a successful business, either!). If you do find someone who can afford all that, more than likely they’re running a boarding and daycare business, as well as doing dog training programs, and you’ll be expected to help out with those aspects of the business. And, as with the chain stores, you may or may not be able to train the curriculum you want. You may not even be able to train the methodology that you want.

So, it behooves professional dog trainers to learn how to successfully run a small business. And, of course, that’s a field of study all its own. You need to understand your financials, good marketing strategies, how to create and implement systems, and much more – usually including personnel. None of this stuff is particularly hard, but you do need to know what you’re doing, so instead of signing up for all those sexy dog training programs, it might be a good idea to replace one or two of them with a business course!

Now, having said that, the one business course that people will sign up for (although not as many as will sign up for an aggression course!), is marketing. We all want to understand the mysteries of marketing. How can we best allocate our limited resources to bring in the most benefit? How do we define our target market? Exactly what is a target market? Isn’t anyone who owns a dog part of our target market? How does our marketing compliment our overall business goals? And so on, and so on.

For more information on Raising Canine’s in-depth business course, go to Good to Great. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Positive Reinforcement Dog Training: Functional Assessment

A functional assessment is a positive reinforcement dog training method for systematically assessing behavior when trying to determine what is setting up the environment to make it easy for the behavior to happen and what is maintaining the behavior. Once we have those two pieces of the puzzle, it makes our job much easier.

It’s important to always remember that behavior has function. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what that function is, but it’s there and we need to suss it out. There are functional relationships between an antecedent and a behavior, and between a behavior and its consequence. Bringing it down to its simplest form, a functional assessment is designed to determine those functional relationships and get to the heart of positive reinforcement dog training.

Too often we assume we know what’s going on – and probably the majority of the time, we’re right. When a client calls me and says his seven-month-old Belgian Malinois is out of control and never settles down, I have pretty good idea of what’s going on. Lack of training, lack of parameters, lack of consistency.

When someone calls and tells me their eight-month-old English Springer Spaniel is eliminating in the house when the owners are not home, my first assumption will be that the dog is not properly house trained, yet. And this is a reasonable assumption because of the age of the dog. But, what if it’s actually separation anxiety? That’s also very possible.

Let’s go back just a bit and talk about the principle of parsimony. In psychology, the principle of parsimony states that when there are two or more possible explanations using and accounting for the same set of facts, we should first test the simplest, briefest explanation before moving on to a more complex explanation. (You may have heard of this concept under the name Occam’s Razor.)

In addition to the principle of parsimony, those of us belonging to a professional organization will usually have some kind of guide for behavioral intervention and dog training techniques. For the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDTO, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), we have the LIMA principle – “least intrusive, minimally aversive.” At the very top of this hierarchy of interventions is physical and mental well-being.

So, utilizing the LIMA hierarchy and the principle of parsimony, the proper path of intervention would be:

  1. Veterinary check to see if there is a urinary tract infection, bladder infection, etc. In my mind, the fact that the dog is only eliminating in the house when the owners are not home makes this an unlikely explanation. However, if it is the explanation, all the training in the world is not going to solve the problem and the dog will be in distress as long as the problem remains, so we need to rule it out.
  2. Go back to basics on house training.
  3. Check for indications of separation anxiety.

Now, basic house training and separation anxiety checks can be done at the same time. There’s no logical reason to go through an extended period of time working on house training if, in fact, the problem is separation anxiety. However, we should never jump straight to separation anxiety without first or coincidentally working on the housetraining issues.

Back to the functional assessment. Again, most of us are doing a mini-FA in our heads as the client is explaining the problem. And, it’s absolutely true that once you’ve been in the business for a while, you’ll have seen the same problems over and over. And that’s fine – we just don’t want to become so sure our hypothesis is correct, that we overlook important information.

When applying positive reinforcement dog training techniques, if the owner is compliant and works on the problem as agreed, execution is good (meaning they understand how to do the training), and the hypothesis is correct, you should see behavioral change in a fairly short period of time – three-to-five days in most situations. This does not mean the problem is resolved, but that you are seeing progress. House training may take a little longer, but if the criteria is raised systematically and everything is in place, that should also happen pretty quickly.

If you are not seeing progress and you are comfortable that the client is doing their tasks properly, then it might be time to do a functional assessment. It’s possible something is going on that you are unaware – and the owner may be unaware of. Here are two examples of situations where something happened to the dog that the owners were not aware that had a great influence on the dog’s behavior.

Example 1 – A dog that had previously had no issues at all suddenly refused to go out into the yard. To the owner’s knowledge, nothing had changed. A trainer was called in and a program of systematic desensitization was implemented. It worked, and everything was fine. Weeks later, the owner found out from a neighbor that the dog had been harassed with a BB gun.

Example 2 – Again, a dog that had no previous problems began having severe panic attacks. All of a sudden he would jump into the owners lap (and this was a big dog!) and begin shivering so hard his teeth rattled. A trainer was called in and the first thought was that perhaps the dog was having seizures. He was about six-to-eight months old and this was a typical age for the onset of some types of seizures. It’s difficult to rule out seizures, because there are so many different things that could be happening. However, the owner was able to get the dog into the vet’s office within an hour of the onset of the attack and the vet was able to do a blood draw and rule out certain things.
Since no one knew what was causing the panic attacks, it was difficult to implement a systematic desensitization program, because they didn’t know what to desensitize the dog to. The only thing that had changed was they had very recently moved into a new house (within weeks of the onset of the attacks). Of course, this was a huge red flag, but it was still difficult to pinpoint exactly what the antecedent was for the attacks.

Eventually, the owners remembered that they had left the dog alone one day while they ran errands. They had just have Venetian blinds installed, had left the windows open, and it was a windy day. The dog had never been around Venetian blinds before and here he is in a brand new environment, alone, and the wind starts rattling the blinds. Taking that information, the owners started paying more attention, and sure enough, it was the wind. The dog was fine outdoors, but in the house, if the wind was blowing he was a nervous wreck. With that information, They were able to institute a systematic desensitization program.

So, these examples show that sometimes it’s very difficult to know what do address. In example #1, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know about the BB gun – they were able to systematically desensitize the dog to the yard without that knowledge. But in example #2, it was more difficult because they didn’t know what the problem was. They could have done straight counter-conditioning, but that’s a much tougher prospect.

In both of these cases, it was a more in-depth analysis of the events surrounding the behavior that led to the solution. And that in-depth analysis is a functional assessment of the effectiveness of any positive reinforcement dog training technique.

For more information on this course, go to A Simple Functional Assessment. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Beyond Dog Training Methods: Create a Quick & Easy Marketing Plan

As professional dog trainers, we’re usually very good at: dog training methods! But, of course, most dog trainers are also small business owners. Unfortunately, we’re usually not so good at the business end of things. And if we break it down even further, the thing we hate most is marketing. Eek!

Marketing can be a deep and unfathomable mystery. What works and what doesn’t? Why does Joe Smith down the road do so well when you know you’re a much better trainer than he is? How come every vet’s office you go into is referring to Joe and isn’t interested in taking the time to listen to another trainer’s pitch?

Well, Joe probably understands marketing. A few years ago a friend of mine had that exact issue. There was another trainer in town, considered an expert in aggression, who used some really deplorable methods and had some really crazy philosophies on dog behavior. This trainer was referred by almost every vet in town – a few were beginning to realize that his dog training methods were questionable and some were getting upset because he was recommending pharmaceutical interventions without discussing it with the vet – but for the most part, he controlled the vet market.

My friend, who absolutely was an expert in aggression, mentioned this to me, so I did a very cursory and informal study on dog trainers and their websites. What I found was that most men (traditional or R+) and most women (traditional) used scary graphics on their websites; whereas, positive reinforcement women rarely used scary graphics. They are much more into explaining aggression and positive reinforcement – in text. These are marketing techniques – the scary picture attracts people and takes them further into the website for more information; the long, drawn out explanations are too dense and complex to read. The scary graphic promises results; the explanation gives caveats. Never forget that ALL purchases are emotional, and particularly a purchase that involves a beloved pet that may be on the verge of euthanasia.

So, the moral of this story is that marketing is important and can greatly influence your business. Once you’ve accessed the market, you have to be able to walk your talk and actually know how to use those dog training methods you market, but accessing it is key. Marketing doesn’t have to be a big mystery – as with any other field of endeavor, there are guidelines and a ton of free information available. And, in today’s world, the Internet has greatly leveled the playing field. You can be as good at marketing as the big boys – you may not be able to produce slick online dog training videos as ads or reach a huge market, but you can certainly reach your local market and do fun and engaging podcasts, videos, etc.

One of the things I do every year is create a simple marketing plan. I think one big thing to think about with a marketing plan is linking your marketing – i.e., one form of marketing links to another form of marketing. A blog links to a coupon, which links to a testimonial, etc. By linking everything, you are able to exponentially increase the impact of your marketing.

Too often, small business people don’t know what to do for marketing and are seduced by cheap ads that reach a lot of people, but more often than not, those people are not their target market. It sounds good, but good is measured in results. Having a plan helps prevent these impulse marketing purchases. $25 for an ad doesn’t sound like much, but if the ad doesn’t work, it’s $25 you could have spent on something that does work.

And, speaking of measured – all marketing endeavors should be measured. How else will you know it’s working. If you do a blog, learn how to use Google Analytics to see your click-throughs. If you put a coupon out, have some way to know that the business is coming from that coupon – a special product, reduced price, free handout, etc. And be patient – marketing takes time and consistency. One blog isn’t going to increase your web traffic; 2-3 blogs per week for six months will.

Here’s a picture of a page of my blogging plan for my 2019 webinars (this is just a small piece of my overall marketing plan). Creating this blogging plan took me less than one day, and it’s pretty dense and comprehensive (309 tasks). This seems crazy intensive, but in reality each webinar has the exact same schedule, so all I have to do is plug in the date, course, and speaker name (look at the section on the right).

I print out one page of the list and keep it on my desk. Each morning I look and see what tasks need to be done, and I do them. It takes maybe 5-10 minutes unless I have to actually write a blog. It’s pretty efficient.

The above schedule is only for blogging to market upcoming webinars. I do another spreadsheet for other types of marketing that I want to do throughout the year. For instance, I tend to focus on upcoming live webinars; but I have over 300 on-demand webinars that I never market. I really need to get on that! It’s a huge profit center that I’m basically ignoring. I worry that I’ll inundate people with e-mail notices, but for my serious dog training market (and that is my market – I don’t target owners or hobbyists) they’re okay with it because they want to know the entire gamut of dog training methods available.

One last thing before I end (it seems like I keep mentioning something which leads to another marketing concept and I want to stick them all in here – but I must focus). However, this is an important marketing concept so I’ll just mention it briefly.

“Market Narrowly, Deliver Broadly”

Market narrowly: What this means is narrow your target market down as much as possible – a lot of people have an avatar of their ideal client. That helps you with targeting your market – you can eliminate marketing venues that don’t reach your target client.

Deliver broadly: This means you still deliver services to people outside your target market. They’ll come through word of mouth, etc. You’re just not marketing to them.

For more information on this course, go to Create a Quick & Easy Marketing Plan. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the hundreds of great on-demand webinars Raising Canine offers – you can find them at this link:  https://www.raisingcanine.com/education/od-webinars/.

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, (www.raisingcanine.com), which provides remote education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing educations and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to learn how to become a professional dog trainer. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year in 2004.