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Training Philosophy

Our basic assumption is that dogs are very trainable and there is a good chance that if your dog is doing something you don't like, you have been unintentionally rewarding your dog with attention which causes your dog to continue doing the behavior. So, much of the misbehavior of dogs is due to inadvertent training by a human.  The story quoted below by John Fisher, is a great example.  We teach you how to avoid reinforcing your dog when they are doing something you don’t want them to do.

"The act of being (what we term) disobedient can also become a learned trait. If we examine the following common scenario, we can see that all the rules of reinforcement training are being used, except in this case the food reward has been substituted by an attention reward.

The owner is intent on watching a particular TV programme and Fido casually wanders in front of the screen. “Get out of the way, Fido”. Fido responds to his name and comes to where his owner is sitting, but still blocks his view of the programme. “No, get over there” and he tries to drag him to one side by his collar. Fido thinks it’s a wonderful game and tries to jump in his lap, only to be pushed off again. “No, you stupid dog. I’m trying to watch TV, Lie down!” Fido doesn’t-he would rather play this rough and tumble game. It was boring when his owner was ignoring him and he has learned if you obey the down command, all you get is a brief “good dog” and then you get ignored again.  Because the owner has been told that if you give a dog a command, you must make it obey, it now becomes important that Fido must lie down. “Down Fido, lie down, DOWN, come here, sit, sit ,sit , now lie down, DOWN!!” by which time he has got out of his chair and is now actively involved in trying to push Fido to the ground.  Fido eventually succumbs and lies down, but not for long.  As soon as his owner resumes watching the television, he gets up and wanders around the room.  His owner does not comment, he didn’t really want him to stay there, he just didn’t want him to block his view of the screen.  Getting up from the down position did not get any attention reward.  Wandering around the room did not get any attention reward. Within 30 seconds, Fido is back in front of the screen.

In this example, the punishment for unwanted behavior was in the form of harsh commands, pushing, pulling and eventually forcing Fido to the ground, which was seen by Fido as a reward.  Had the punishment been very severe, it might have had the effect of stopping the attention seeking, but it would have been inappropriate under the circumstances and might have caused an adverse fear reaction.  Fido’s ultimate goal was to interact with his owner.  By pure chance, he blocked his owner’s view of the screen and the reinforcement started, the more unruly he became, the more it was reinforced - a classic example of inadvertent training.

I have seen dogs that can open handbags and pinch the contents, dogs who desperately need a pee when the owners are on the phone, dogs who engage in manic tail chasing or shadow watching when visitors are present and even a dog who could let out the loudest burp if everyone ignored it.  If you were to ask the owners to train the dogs to perform these feats, they wouldn’t know where to start, but in fact they have inadvertently trained them, because they didn’t understand the main principle of reinforcement training - a reward is anything which the SUBJECT perceives to be rewarding."

Dogs learn differently than humans.  A successful trainer keeps in mind that dogs only have a rudimentary ability to understand language and don’t generalize as well as humans do. To be an efficient trainer, your timing has to be good.  We can be precise about what we want by saying “yes” or clicking at the exact moment the dog does what we want. However if our timing is bad we end up getting a behavior different
from the one we want. Usually the dog is not being stubborn or stupid or dominant, we are being unclear. One behavior we teach in our school is to have the dogs look at us when we hold a piece of food out so that our arm is making a 90 degree angle with our body. The first step in this process is to reward the dog for just looking away from the food. If the trainer’s timing is bad and sometimes the dog is rewarded for looking at the food and sometimes the dog is rewarded for looking away from the food, then instead of training the dog to look away from the food, the dog gets trained to shake his head “no”.  Cute but not what the trainer wanted.

We also try to make it easy for the dog to learn the cue we had in mind.  Many dogs will go down if you stand up and lean toward them.  Some dogs will not sit unless you have a dog treat in your hand. This happens because the trainer always gave 2 cues while the dog learned the behavior. In both of the above cases, the trainer wanted the dog to learn a word cue, but the dog learned the body movement cue in the first case (leaning forward), and seeing the reward in the second case. Again, dogs are not as verbal as people are but they are masters at reading body language and they also naturally pay more attention to food than words which is why we fade our food lures very quickly.

Our school sets you and your dog up to succeed.   Sue Ailsby says it so well, “She (your dog) isn't supposed to be wrong so you can fix it, she's supposed to be right so you can reinforce it.”  We therefore don’t move onto a 3 second stay until we are convinced your dog understands a 2 second stay. We don’t walk 4 feet away from our dog until we are sure she can stay if we take one small step to one side. Our school slogan is “Festina lente” which means hurry slowly. This means we increase the difficulty of the assigned tasks only when the dog understands what is expected at the current level and is getting it right 80-90% of the time.

And finally, during all this time, we recognize as Bob Bailey, bio link, often says, “Pavlov is always on your shoulder”, link.  What this means in our school, is sometimes dogs come to our classes who aren’t immediately ready to learn the regular curriculum
because the other dogs scare them or excite them and so they can’t concentrate on their work.  Some dogs arrive who are frightened of people. We work on these issues first because learning is not easily accomplished if you are scared or excited. Using food rewards often helps these dogs because it is extremely difficult to be very scared or
very excited and eat at the same time. Even if your dog easily works in our class environment, your training will proceed more quickly if you
understand what distracts your dog and learn basic canine body language so that you can remove your dog from stressful or dangerous situations. We often have to remind a human why giving a verbal cue to dog who just learned this cue while the dog is at the end of the leash facing away from the human staring at another dog classmate won't work. Communicating across species lines can be frustrating at times but once you hone your timing and ability to "talk dog", it is exhilarating.

At Canis Sapiens we love dogs and marvel at the dogs that help us as:


We also appreciate our own dogs who:

alert us to danger
entertain us
encourage us to take a walk everyday
improve our general and mental health
love us

Canis Sapiens employs positive dog trainers who realize that if a dog barks at you and receives a cookie, the dog is probably not thinking "Wow, now I'm the dominant alpha" but more likely, "Cool, now I know how to get a cookie". Canis Sapiens' reward-based methods often work well with dogs that have been difficult to train using choke, pinch or e-collars.

The following Links discuss the limitations of other dog training methods:
4Paws University's dog psychology 101

[NOTE: We're sorry but the following link needs updating: Viewpoint of Jean Donaldson, Director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers]

Poition on Punishment Training from the Dog Scout's website