Excerpt 1: Choice Teaching
We had been using a basic form of positive reinforcement exclusively for several years at Canine Assistants and it was fairly effective. We didn't use punishment or correction, but neither did we want to let the dogs get away with not doing as we asked. Rather, we just continued repeating the cue until the dogs did what we asked or some approximation thereof.
The problem we kept running into was that many of the dogs would go through a stage where they would become resistant to doing as asked. It was as if the dogs decided to "just say no" to any requested behaviors, looking away and completely tuning their trainer out.
It was my son Chase who helped me figure out what was happening. I was explaining to him how tough school had been for me as a child. I felt trapped there and I spent most of my mornings trying to figure out how to skip school. So my mother, in her seemingly infinite wisdom, unlatched the trap. She sent me to school each day with a signed, but not dated, permission slip for early dismissal and a promise to come and get me if I ever felt like I had to leave.
The first day I went off with that note tucked in to my pocket, I fell in love with everything about school. In the eight years I carried the note I never once used it. "I understand," Chase said, "You just needed to know you had a choice. I think everybody likes to have a choice."
I replayed what Chase said in my mind over and over that night. We weren't really giving our dogs a choice or even the illusion of choice in their training. We were, in essence, making them to do as we asked but doing so in a nice way. Maybe the lack of choice was the missing component in our methodology.
I thought of all I had learned about how dogs perceive and process things, about their abilities and limitations. I worked through the night rewriting our teaching guidelines to give the dogs choice. For example, instead of teaching the puppies to walk calmly on our left side while on leash, I suggested trying it in a small, safely fenced area with the puppies off-leash. When the pups would walk where we wanted them, we would give them little treats and great praise. When the puppies chose to run around, we'd do nothing to stop them; we simply wouldn't reward them for it. When the puppies settled into walking calmly beside us, then we would slip on a leash and collar.
In the morning, I had our trainers trying the new approach. It took less than an hour before they began excitedly calling me to watch their dogs. The dogs who had become resistant to doing such basic behaviors as "sit" were eagerly doing everything their trainers asked them to do. Dogs who had been unwilling to get into their kennel were now enthusiastically doing so.
The difference? The trainers were cueing the dogs and offering them great reward if they did as asked, then the trainers were being quiet and allowing the dogs to figure it out for themselves. Little by little, each dog decided that it was in his best interest to do as asked. Once the dog decided to perform a behavior, such as "kennel," of his own volition, the next time he was asked for that behavior, he did it quickly and willingly. Thanks to my insightful young son, I finally understood what had been missing: choice.
Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Arnold
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