My Dog Is Totally Trained, Right?
Learn why training's never done, and why there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
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Maintenance Training for Behavior You Like
Experiments like Juniper’s are, as far as I’m concerned, welcome and even entertaining. But remember I said animals experiment because it helps them meet their wants and needs in a changeable world. Let’s say you teach your dog to come when called, and you’ve got him rocketing to you in all kinds of circumstances the instant you say “Zippy, here!” But then you slack off. You stop bringing treats with you when you hike with Zippy off leash, because, after all, he’s “trained.”
Well, as much as Zippy presumably likes to be with you, there’s a big, interesting world out there, and sometimes it has pieces of somebody’s discarded Big Mac in it. If you stop rewarding Zippy for coming when you call, then sooner or later the balance tips toward eating Big Macs instead. This is natural, normal behavior change, not a palace coup. If you want Zippy’s behavior of coming when called to stay the same, then it has to keep working for him as well as for you. Even after Zippy has practiced and practiced and practiced till he’s letter perfect, you should give him frequent refreshers.
In fact, the eminent animal trainer Bob Bailey has been heard to say that you should never stop rewarding the behavior you want, no matter how well you’ve trained it. He and his wife and partner, Marion Breland Bailey, had observed that even the most skilled trainers missed many correct behaviors by the animals they were teaching. So no matter how generously they thought they were rewarding the animals, they were actually being much more stingy. And since any animal will give up a behavior that isn’t working, or isn’t working well enough, it behooves us to make sure that the behaviors we want get our dog friends something that they want. That could be food, attention, play, a chest scratch, or all of the above.
“My Dog Should …”
I can just see some of you scrunching up your faces and getting ready to say “But my dog should …” whatever. No, sorry, there is no “should,” and I would love to just erase the idea that our dogs owe us their obedience. We bring them into our households and control their lives, and on top of that we expect them to behave in all kinds of ways that from a dog’s point of view are completely nonsensical: Walk in a straight line, parallel to your companion and at exactly the same pace all the time. Leave that roast beef and kitty poop alone. Stop chewing on this strangely-shaped item made of tasty leather, and not only that but give it up happily, without a growl. Quit playing with the other dogs and instead come here so I can walk you home on leash in the aforementioned unnatural, boring style.
Yes, of course, our dogs love us and enjoy our company. But my goodness, we ask them to do some weird things! The least we can offer in exchange is to make it fun and rewarding to comply, and to accept that our dog friends are live, experimenting, change-making, and not perfectly programmable. Always training, never just plain trained.
That’s it for this week. You can write to me at email@example.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes at quickanddirtytips.com/dog-trainer or do a search for your question on our site. I have probably already answered your query. And please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer.
If you're working with your dog on those desireable behaviors, consider getting a copy of my book, The Dog Trainer's Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet. It has tons of training tricks to keep both you and your dog on your toes.