Dr. Yin’s Answers to Common Dog Training Questions

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS December 1, 2010

jonespostardcat-1I've heard that a tired dog is a behaved dog. Will exercise solve most of my dog's problems? Dogs are natural athletes and, as such, need exercise every day; however, exercise is not a substitute for training. In fact, for many dogs, vigorous exercise just gets them into better shape. For instance, my Jack Russell Terrier can easily run 18 miles and still have enough energy to bounce up and down when he thinks I'll play fetch. When I've taken him out for a 10 mile run, I frequently forget as soon as we're back that he's been exercised.

Do I need to be the boss when training my dog, cat, horse or bird? While you will need to set rules and limits so that your pet knows how to behave, you don't have to teach the behaviors by using force such as pinning them on their sides or yanking with a choke chain. You can instead train the pet by rewarding the good behaviors immediately as they occur and ensuring the pet does not get rewards for bad behavior. As a result, your approach for getting Fido trained should be more like a game of chess and less like a boxing match.

If I train my pet how long will the training last? Animals learn and change their habits throughout their life. This continual learning is important because an animal in the wild that stops learning won't be able to adapt to its environment and survive. Continue reinforcing good behaviors throughout the animal's life.

What's the most common training mistake people make? People think they're only training during planned training sessions when in reality, animals are continually being rewarded for good and bad behaviors all day. As a result of the lack of awareness owners often spend more time accidentally rewarding the undesirable behaviors than rewarding the desirable ones.

What's the most important thing you to understand about your dog or cat or horse to modify behavior? The most important point about animals is that animals perform behaviors because the behaviors have been reinforced. In order to change behavior, we have to reward an alternate behavior that you would prefer and remove all rewards for undesirable behavior. This means that you have to recognize what might be reinforcing bad behavior so that you don't accidentally reward it.

What do you use for rewards? It's important to use everything that motivates your pet to your advantage. Food rewards work well because, for instance, if your pet eats 100 kibble a day, you can reward him 100x for the same behavior in one day, which means he can learn the behavior and form a habit quickly. Once he knows the behavior well, you can give the food rewards intermittently and alternate with other reinforcers. Ultimately, you want to use what's most reinforcing to the pet in that instance. For example, if you're teaching your dog to sit before going out the door, at first reward with a sequence of treats for sitting and looking at you for permission before you let him out. Once he's consistently good at this behavior, you no longer need treats because his ultimate reward is getting to go out the door once he's automatically sat for you.

What's the most important behavior you can teach your pet? In general, for dogs and cats, the most important behavior is to teach them to ask politely for things they want by automatically saying please by sitting and looking at you for everything they want-that means food, petting, being picked up, going out the door, getting leash on, etc. By teaching them to learn to earn everything they learn that focusing on you isn't a chore, it's just the way they get what they want. They also learn emotional self control-that no matter how excited they are for the ball or treat, they only get it if they choose to sit and politely ask for permission. Then, in other situations where they want something or are unsure of what to do, they will tend to look to you for guidance. In other words they will start seeing you as a leader. Incidentally, the second most important behavior to teach your dog is to come running when called even with lots of distractions.

What's special about horses? One important reinforcer for horses and other herd animals that is not a reinforcer for dogs and cats is rest. As a result, when working on an exercise with a horse, goat, or cow, as soon as it performs the exercise correctly, you can reward it by letting it rest for an amount of time equal to the time and effort the exercise took.

What's special about cats? Because cats often have their food out at all times and have not been exposed to many different foods you often have to first add treats to their meal so they learn to like the treats. Then, you often have to cut back on their regular meal because they are getting too much and train them during mealtimes until their food becomes a valuable resource. Another peculiarity of cats is that they are good at pretending they have a low attention span or don't get it. They may meow and meow or walk around aimlessly until you just walk over and give them the treat or reward. In these instances, rather than walking over to them when they really want your attention, walk away so they know that if they don't play your game, you'll remove all chances of a reward. Usually they will follow you and try harder to do what you want them to do to earn the reward. If they don't, then stop the session and resume a little later.

What's special about parrots? Most parrot species are very both very social and very vocal. They spend much of their time communicating back and forth loudly with their mate or other members of their flock. As a result, attention, and talking are very rewarding to them, even if that talking is yelling. Face it, when we yell at them it sounds a lot like the squawks they give to eachother. Be sure you use these things as rewards so that you're training good behaviors rather than always providing these things freely without thought and, consequently, sometimes as a reward for bad behavior.

Are some species, such as dogs, smarter than others such as cats? This depends on how you define intelligence. If you define the most intelligent animal as the one that gets its way, then cats are hands down much smarter than dogs. People tend to think that animals that don't learn what they are teaching must be stupid rather than considering the fact that maybe they themselves are bad teachers or that they are using the wrong incentives or motivators. When animals are trained using positive reinforcement and behaviors are shaped in a stepwise fashion, cats and many animals one might consider dumb can learn as fast as dogs.

Are some dogs smarter and easier to train than others? The first part is difficult to answer because intelligence can be measured in many ways. But more importantly, smarter does not mean easier to train. The easiest dogs to train are those that are relatively calm and have a dependent personality so that they want to please you. Because they have a follower personality, they learn what you want despite the gaps in your training and are happy to oblige. Dogs that are more independent and consequently could care less about verbal kudos have to be trained more methodically and with things that are actually motivating to them. When trained in a stepwise fashion you may not notice much difference in speed of learning and they will appear happy and willing to learn too. When you skip steps or use rewards that the dog doesn't care about, these dogs come off as stubborn and willful. When you combine independence with high energy and arousal such as a Jack Russell Terrier, plus a strong ability to problem-solve or tenacity in getting to what they want, you can be in for a big struggle. If you're not a step ahead and several IQ points smarter, your cute puppy Einstein may develop into an evil genius.

Do you use only positive reinforcement? No. While it's essential that we focus on reinforcing good behaviors, it's equally important to remove rewards for undesirable behavior (scientific definition = negative punishment). If both are not done equally, then the animal will continue to be confused as to which behavior you want and a good habit will never be formed.

What are the most common mistakes people make when using positive reinforcement? A common mistake is that people don't distinguish the difference between a lure/baiting and a reinforcer. A lure is when the animal sees the motivator such as food or a toy in front of his face and performs the behavior because he's just following it. A reinforcer is when the dog performs the behavior and then he may or may not get the reward after he performs the behavior. In one case-luring-the pet can see the food or toy and decide whether he wants to follow it and perform the behavior. In the second case, he doesn't always get the reward afterwards and he doesn't know until after he performs the behavior whether he will one. Many owners start with luring and never progress beyond needing to bait. A second common mistake is that people often praise or pet animals as a reward when the animal shows no behavioral indication that he finds these rewarding. With wild animals such as giraffes, the training is still paired with food usually so the only negative is that the giraffe has to hear a lot of blabbing. For dogs, the praise and petting is often in lieu of something he would rather have such as food, so the dog ends up getting bored.

If I use food/treats for training won't the pet only behave when I have food? If you train incorrectly or incompletely with food then you will always need food around for the animal to perform the behavior. Conversely with punishment you're likely to always need the punisher (choke chain, pinch collar) on the dog or readily available so that the dog knows that if he doesn't behave he will get punished.

The way to wean off food rewards is to first reward enough so that the animal learns the behavior well in different contexts. Then the handler should start rewarding with food more intermittently and sometimes switching and using other rewards that the dog wants at that instant, such praise or toys. One mistake is to accidentally make it black and white to the dog that training occurs in specific sessions and at other times they don't require or reward the same good behavior. In fact, they may even accidentally reward bad behavior. In other words, they have not made it a habit yet that the dog behaves throughout the day, it's only habit to behave during training sessions. What owners should do is have the reward available every time during the day that they need it until the dog learns to behave well all the time.

Won't using treats train the dog or horse to be nippy? Your pet will only become nippy if you reward nippy behavior. For instance, if you feed the food reward when your dog lunges for the food or horse grabs then you will train the dog or horse to lunge to get the food. The best way to prevent nippy behavior is to reward the horse only when he stands with his head away from you and to reward the dog only when he's gentle.

Do people have naughty pets because they treat them like their kids? People should not spoil their kids or their pets. Spoiled kids who have no boundaries tend to grow into depressed adults. Spoiled dogs who have no limits tend to be more anxious or frustrated than dogs with clear rules even though they may have access to everything they want.

Is punishment ever appropriate? Punishment, which for the purpose here we will define as force or coercion, can range from verbal reprimand, to a painful jerk on a choke chain or pinch collar, to using an electronic shock. It's anything that the animal dislikes or wants to avoid and it decreases the behavior being punished. While punishment can be effective in some situations, it is generally a more advanced technique and can have many side effects. People tend to use punishment indiscriminately because it's the first thing that comes to their mind. That is, they use punishment because they are not proactive enough to reward good behavior and prevent rewards for bad behavior. As a veterinarian, my job is to recommend the techniques that are safest to both animal and human and that are effective. Consequently, I do not recommend punishment as general approach to training because other safer and equally or more effective techniques are available. When punishment is used, it should be used with full knowledge of the potential side effects so that they can be avoided or remedied if they do occur. Here are several considerations when deciding on whether punishment is appropriate.

  • In general, punishment should only be used after the handler has a strong history of reinforcing the good behavior so that the pet has an alternate appropriate behavior it knows to perform.
  • Punishment should only be used as a way to buy time to reward the good behavior frequently enough so it becomes a habit. In general my recommendation is that if punishment is used, it should be used for one specific behavior and an alternate behavior should be rewarded 50x to every punishment.
  • Punishment can cause the other pets in the household to become anxious and fearful. Although the punishment may not be directed at them it may still scare them. Since it's not related to any behavior that they can control, meaning they have no way to predict when or prevent it from occurring, they are likely to become more anxious.
  • Punishment must be strong enough to get a clear reaction and so that the animal does not habituate to (adapt to or get used to) the force used. The problem is that this can also cause injury to the animal if it's too high. And it can cause anxiety if the timing is not right or the owner doesn't consistently punish every single time the bad behavior occurs.
  • Generally negative punishment (removing the reward for bad behavior) and positive reinforcement are easier to perform and more effective than using force (positive punishment). Both require the same timing, but as you'll see, positive punishment may require more strength and more speed.
  • Punishment can cause animals to become more aggressive and aroused. For instance, animals are often scared when threatened with punishment and may become defensive when they can't flee. When animals are fearful of being hurt, they can run, freeze or fight. If running or freezing doesn't work, then they are more likely to fight.

For more information on punishment download the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's (AVSAB) Guidelines on the use of punishment.

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15 responses to “Dr. Yin’s Answers to Common Dog Training Questions

  1. Hi..
    Having dogs as pets is fun for many primarily because of the amicable characteristics that these four-legged friends possess. They are playful, smart, and would surely stay loyal to you no matter what happens, proving that they are indeed man’s best friends. On the other hand, it might not always be flowers and sunshine when you are with your pet. Instilling discipline and obedience are just some of the issues that owners have to deal with in caring for a pet.

  2. Thank you so much for this website!!! We have found it very helpful to teaching our puppy to be polite and listen to us. One problem we still have is that our 7 month old Golden Retriever, Captain, chases our cats. It has come to the point where we are concerned about our cats behaviors, should we have him sit while the cats are present and watch us or use something like a vibration collar when he tries to chase them? Thank you so much!!!!!!

  3. Watch the video on the videos page (dog class demo). The goal is to make the repeat sit exercises really fun so your dog would rather focus on you than anything else. Then you do these exercises around the cat and the only time he’s around the cat is when you are doing these exercises. You may need to first train him to love wearing a gentle leader head collar (refer to http://www.lowstresshandling.com/online/abridged chapter 18) if you can’t move in an exciting enough way for him in the confined space if your house when the cat is present.

  4. I have a 17 month old intact female Cardigan Welsh Corgi that has discovered an annoying behavior maybe self rewarding. If T’Pol is crated and one of my four cats happen to wander within sight of the crate, she’ll slam the front of the crate with her front paws, screeching or barking to high heaven. T’Pol hits the crate front hard enough to actually physically move it (wire crate). Naturally it startles the cat and it runs off. Occasionally she’ll do it when one of my other corgis wander into view. Most of the time she’ll get a startle/run response out of my male Pem but my 10 yr. old female Pem after the intial start pays her no heed. Because she gets a response from the other animals (or if I’m sitting close by reading or working on the computer when one of her furry housemates wanders by), I am convinced that it has become a self rewarding behavior.

    I have learned from experience that for T’Pol any attention reinforces any behavior including undesirable ones. Right now I’m covering her crate with a sheet so she cannot see her housemates wandering about. If she hears them close by she still barks but not as dramatically and none the slamming of the crate. This is a band-aid method until I can come up with an effective way of stopping the behavior. The problem is finding one that rewards good behavior (quiet/calm) to seeing her housemates outside of her crate whilst allowing any reward for negative behavior (barking/slamming the front of crate).

  5. Have 2dogs from shelters, neither know how to play with toys or even each other. They stay VERY quiet & out if sight..take them walking daily (x2) very well behaved but oh so quiet. How do I get them to interact?

  6. I have 2 three and a half month old anatolleon shepards we bought them for guardian dogs we raise goats turkeys and pigs. The dogs seem to want to be friends with anyone and want to go after the cats should we keep them isolated from most people and try introducing them. To the family farm animals they dont bark at anything but the cats. We are very confused on where to start, any help would be greatly appreciated ? Thanks Al

  7. A family who lives close by is giving up their 5 year old welsh terrier to my family… the reason being that the
    dog is biting their two year old, and that another baby is on the way. The parents are heartbroken over their decision to give up the dog.
    My question is: Would it be a good idea for their family to come and visit the dog at our house from time to time?
    Would this upset the dog during her transition period (to see them leave?). Or would a clean break be better?

  8. my dog is a 2 year old germen shepherd I live in the country she barks at animals in the woods all night, she loves every one never meets a stranger and has never barked at anyone or cars night or day I need to no how to train her to bark when someone comes up

  9. Wade, my ex-boyfriend has a dog, Buddy, who really loves me. Now and then, Wade gets wigged out about something (the latest episode being that I asked him to help pay for the flea infestation Buddy caused in my house), and when he does, he won’t let me see Buddy for a while. Every time he does this, when Buddy sees me, he displays fear and anxiety towards me. If I see him in the car in town, and Wade isn’t around, he’ll come over to the window to say hi to me, but then he looks for Wade and cries. It breaks my heart, and I don’t want to create any anxiety in him. What’s happening to cause this in him?

  10. We have 2 girl dogs they are beagle mix we got one when she was 2 months old and when she was 10 months old we seen her biological sister had been returned to the shelter for not being cared for properly she was over fed and never taken to the vet, when we first got them they were aggressive to each other here and there setting boundaries for each other but now they play all the time wrestle and what not get along and every now and then they get too aggressive And we break it up so it doesn’t get bad but we let them sleep with us and for some reason now the one we adopted 2nd when the other dog gets off the bed and jumps back up onto the bed she will start growling at her and snarling i don’t know what to do, we love sleeping with them but we don’t want to wake up to them fighting on us or scaring her and her biting us hope you can help thanks in advance

  11. RESCUE>>> I have trained dogs and been VERY successful with very very kind obedient and wonderfully crafty dogs that problem solve and have true insight. BUT NOW I AM STUMPED…. We adopted an abused dog. He is sweet, smart but not very smart (I think malnutrition and abuse affected his development as he was physically abused since a puppy to about a year and a half old). We have come a LONG way but cannot get rid of his aggression with anxiety (HE HAS NEVER BITTEN ANYONE BUT “ARGUES” mouthing and grumbling or growling) when he is put out of his “comfort zone”, i.e.. nail trimming, baths, ear cleaning, etc. Otherwise he is touchable, lovable, socialized, well traveled, exercised, and trained. But he still freaks out when he is not comfortable or feels threatened. (WE NEVER HIT him, only encourage him that it is ok, while scolding aggression “with a firm NO”.) PLEASE HELP,
    PS still gets into food left out if accessible. (PS he was starving when we got him…too)

    1. Hi Lynne. Last things first; the “starving dog” issue is a very difficult to overcome. For the time being, you will have to be very alert to not leave food out. As for the rest, this is not uncommon. This is where counter-conditioning comes in. Here is a good example of how to change a negative behavior to a neutral one. https://drsophiayin.com/videos/entry/counter-conditioning_a_dog_to_blowing_in_face/. In your case, you can substitute whatever triggers him for the “blowing in the face” trigger in the video. Further techniques can be found in this DVD in our store https://drsophiayin.com/videos/entry/counter-conditioning_a_dog_to_blowing_in_face/

      Good luck and let us know if you have more questions.

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