Why Behaviour Matters!

It wasn’t all that long ago that animal welfare only required that we meet our pets physiological needs – they have food, water, and shelter, and get treatment for illness or injury if needed. Recently we’re realising that meeting an animals behavioural needs are equally important to keep an animal happy!

Most behavioural problems are normal animal behaviours being expressed in ways that are annoying or disruptive to the humans having to put up with them! Unfortunately by the time a behaviour is getting really annoying, the pet has usually been practising it for quite some time, making it a hard habit to break.

It is important for pet owners to learn about what their pets normal behaviour should be, how to give them outlets for their natural behaviours that aren’t destructive or annoying, and how to notice signs that their pet might be becoming stressed or unhappy. This is just as important as researching which vet to go to, what food to feed, and what toys and bedding they will need.

Owners often say they’d love it if their pet could just tell them what’s wrong! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, or birds, are well equipped with a wide range of body language and behaviours that can give us wonderful information about how they are feeling.

body language

A massive part of what we do at Treat. Play. Love. is helping owners to learn how to pay attention to their pets body language – the different ways a dog can wag its tail, the way a cat might back away and watch warily if its unsure, and how a birds eyes might flash before a bite. These are all clues we can tap into to improve how we interact with our pets, showing that we understand and respect what they’re trying to tell us.

Not sure where to start looking for more information? Just ask us! There are excellent books, e-books, websites and online groups that are all dedicated to helping owners understand their pets behaviour. We want to help people unravel the mystery so they can train smart, not tough.

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Keep it quick

You’re standing there with your pet in front of you, bridge (clicker or other) at the ready, and a pouch full of tasty treats. You’re shaping your pet along the path towards a fun new trick or useful behaviour. You get a great response! It’s such an exciting, and sometimes even adrenaline pumping, experience. So then you ask for just one more repetition…..

too much training

Oops!

Can anyone else relate to this common training mishap? If you’ve been there before you probably know that the next response is hardly ever as awesome as the one before, and then you’re chasing an ok response to end the session on a good note. It’s one of those situations that is easy to look at critically in hindsight.

So what can you do to keep training sessions short and snappy, so that you’re leaving your pet on a high note rather than scrabbling for a so-so one?

You could set a timer, when it dings you stop. If you’ve worked with your pet before, then you’ll be able to pick a time that you know your pet can focus for the full duration. If you have any doubts, set the time really short. Just enough for a few repetitions.

I’m often suggesting people keep some treats handy so they can have a speedy training session in the ad breaks of their favourite tv shows. This will limit each session to 1-2 minutes, and will mean both trainer and pet can stay focused.

Another option is to train for just a set number of treats. You might get 5 pieces of hot dogs, and when you run out that is the end of that session. If you physically run out of rewards, then you will make yourself stop, rather than trying for one more sneaky rep.

Most importantly, go into every session with a clear picture of what you are trying to teach. Know the steps you will take to get there, not just this session but all the way to completion. That way, if your pet jumps 10 steps ahead, you can keep training seamlessly. Also think how you can break each step down further, so that if your pet gets stuck you can make it easier to succeed.

Training should be fun for both you and your pet! By keeping sessions nice and quick you are ensuring that you are both bringing your full attention to the game, and ending before the game gets old. There’s no reason to drill your pet through his training. Train smart, not tough!

ABC: Predicting your pets behaviour

“He just bit me, out of no where, he gave no warning…”

The above statement is something we hear often. However, despite popular belief, it can never be said that behaviour comes “out of nowhere”.

Behaviour is the result of past consequences. This means that if your pet does something that leads to something great happening, he will do it more often. If you ask your dog to “come” and you give him a chunk of chicken when he gets to you, he will probably come more often in future. If his behaviour leads to something unpleasant happening, then he is less likely to do it again in future. So if you ask your dog to “come” and then get give him a tablet or a bath, he is less likely to listen to your cue next time. We can remember this in all our interactions with our pets. When we train with positive reinforcement we are adding a great consequence when our pets do something we like.

parrot training

As well as being influenced by consequences, behaviour is prompted by what we call antecedents. Simply put, these are the things that happen right before the behaviour, they set the stage for the behaviour to happen. Leaving the lid off the garbage bin could be the antecedent for your dog digging through the trash. You cueing “step up” could be the antecedent for your bird to step onto your hand. It is important for us to pay attention to what conditions set the stage for our pets to behave in certain ways. By modifying the antecedents, sometimes we can change or even stop the behaviour.

When we want to change behaviour, we can describe three things:

A: Antecedent (what set the stage)

B: Behaviour (what we want to change)

C: Consequence (what follows)

Depending on the behaviour we can modify the antecedent, or the consequence, or both, to achieve our training goals.

In some situations where our pets appear to act very suddenly and without warning, we need to consider if we know what subtle body language they might have given prior, and also consider whether we might have done something to make our pet feel as though their body language was not enough. Many dogs, cats, parrots, etc who lunge or bite other animals or people give a lot of body language prior to reaching that point. Dogs may freeze, stare, turn away, or put their ears back. Cats might flick their tail, pin their ears back, or crouch away. Birds often lean away, pin their pupils, and either slick/fluff their feathers (species vary). If we persistently ignore this body language and proceed to push our pets too hard and too fast, they may simply stop giving those signs and start using more obvious body language, such as biting. 

Our pets do not behave at random, they are always learning, and their goal is only to get the good stuff. If we don’t take the time to teach them appropriate ways to earn the goodies, then it is inevitable that they will find their own games (and you might not like them).

Not-so-guilty Dogs

“He knows it’s naughty, he has that guilty look when I get home!”

guilty dog look

I’ve heard the above statement, or a variation of it, said more times than I can remember. It usually follows a repeat misbehaviour on the part of the dog, and more often than not the situation involves the owner either coming home or discovering the evidence following a period of no supervision. 

So why do I cringe internally every time I hear an owner describe their dog as “guilty”?

Guilt is a human concept. To know you are guilty you must be able to grasp the concept of right and wrong, which is a fairly abstract concept. Humans know that it’s wrong to steal, and right to help people. We know that it’s wrong to lie, and right to eat well end exercise. Dogs don’t, at least not in the way we do.

Dogs experience the world in things that pay off, and things that don’t. Raiding the trash when no one is home pays off, because you get that stinky old piece of ham that has been wafting past your nose all day. Raiding the trash when mum is in the kitchen does not pay off, she’ll probably yell at you and shoo you out of the room. Is Fido raiding the trash knowing full well that it is a bad thing to do? No! He is just trying to locate that super tasty morsel you tossed out last night!

So then why does Fido look so darn guilty when you walk in and find that he’s been in the trash (or wrecked your shoes, dug up the yard, pooped in the house, etc)? The “guilty look” that people describe in dogs is actually a combination of appeasement signals that your dog is offering to try to reduce your bad mood. Dogs have been bred for decades to tune into our body language, this helps us work together so well. It also means they can tell very quickly if we’re about to get mad. We might walk in and see that they’ve done something naughty, and suddenly we tense up, our mouth makes a thin, angry line, we might furrow our eyebrows, our voice is probably deep when we call their name. We are a sending our dog all the signs that say “you’re about to get in trouble”. They will respond by wagging their tail low and quick, or even between their legs. They will lower their head and put their ears back. They will avoid eye contact. They might even creep up to us and roll over to expose their belly. Sure looks guilty, but it’s not!

guilty dog training

There is no benefit to applying human concepts, such as “guilt”, to our dogs. If we assume that Fido knows he shouldn’t do that, then we are putting the blame on Fido rather than thinking of useful ways to teach Fido the right things to do. We are failing to set him up to succeed. Always remember that dogs will repeat behaviours that pay off – try to work out what about this “misbehaviour” is paying off, and change things so it stops working.

Why is punishment so addictive?

For a long time, before I became terribly interested in animal behaviour and training, I used what is often called “traditional” training methods with my pet dog and birds. Never anything particularly harsh, but nothing that was particularly constructive for my pets learning new things either. From using a check chain on dog walks, to pushing into my birds belly until it stepped onto my finger, I achieved some training goals…eventually. Some i never achieved, because i had no way to teach them with the tools i’d been given. Considerably more time was spent reacting to what my pets did wrong. There was the “UH UH!” and “NO!” as well as the squirty bottle, tin of 5c pieces (to make a loud noise), and a loud clap behind the head.

The more i learn, the more dust these methods gather in my “training toolbox”. As i “crossed over” from traditional training to training with positive reinforcement the hardest thing to drop was the reactive punishment-based methods when my pets would do something i didn’t like. Why is punishment so addictive to so many pet owners?

One thing that comes to mind is that punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, albeit temporarily. How satisfying is it when your dog is barking and barking and barking, and you finally crack and bang on the window while yelling “NO!”, and your dog goes quiet. Ahhhh!! It worked!! Peace and quiet. I bet you that your dog will start barking again though. Why? Because you haven’t taught it what to do, nor have you addressed the reason it was barking. In the same situation, with you present or not, your dog will bark again.

While punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, our pets often become surprisingly resilient to the deterrents we throw their way. The first time you just said “no”, then it got louder, next you had to stand and move threateningly towards your pet, then swat at it, smack it, etc. For punishment to continue working it has to escalate, often beyond the point that we feel comfortable (we pet owners aren’t heartless after all).

stress signals dog training

To be proactive in training, we have to plan ahead and put the effort in before the problem occurs. This is part of setting our pets up to succeed, making it easy for them to get it right. Sometimes all the good intentions in the world aren’t enough to motivate us to get off the couch and train our pet to do some useful basic behaviours. After all, if they’re not misbehaving then chances are they aren’t annoying us. Humans are often very reactive in nature, waiting for a problem to crop up before fixing it. Learning to be a proactive trainer can be hard, just like learning any new skill set, while being reactive with punishment often comes very easily to us.

Another addictive quality of using punishment-based methods is that they often work really well initially, and then variably, and eventually not at all. Why is this addictive? For the same reason that gambling is addictive! Once we feel we can achieve a result using punishment, we become addicted. Even if it stops working so well, we know it used to work – maybe it will work again. It keeps us trying, even in the absence of long-term results.

So there are a few reasons why it might feel really hard to rein-in your reactions to your pets misbehaviour. It is hard to change a long-term habit! But it is worth putting punishment in the “last resort” category when training. The more you learn about positive, force-free methods, the more you will realise that those “last resort” situations are incredibly rare. Anything that can be achieved with punishment can be achieved more kindly, and with more resilience (the results will LAST), using positive-reinforcement.

Train smart, not tough!

Is your pet food motivated?

Let me give you a hint. Yes, your pet is food motivated.

Food is what we call a primary reinforcer. This means that it is needed for survival, and is therefore naturally reinforcing. We don’t need to pair it with anything, or condition it in any special way for it to be a good thing. Other primary reinforcers include water, shelter, oxygen, and sex. In training, primary reinforcers are the strongest rewards to use when teaching new behaviours.

Many people claim that they’ve tried positive-reinforcement training before, but their pet simply isn’t food motivated. I challenge this notion, because unless their pet is dead it must be eating. If their pet is eating, then some of those calories can be used for training.

There are a few things that might reduce a pets interest in food during training:

1. You’re being cheap with your food rewards

Stop breaking your treats into microscopic pieces. Imagine if someone fed you a piece of cake crumb by crumb, you wouldn’t enjoy it and you would probably give up on it before the piece was done. Bite-sized pieces are ideal, as they keep training speedy, but your pet would like to taste his hard earned reward!

2. You’re using a low-value food reward

If your pet has free access to a bowl full of dry food/seed/etc, why on earth would he work hard during training to earn what he can get for free? When training new behaviours, use something good – dogs might enjoy chicken or steak pieces, cats might enjoy some fish pate or tuna chunks, and birds might enjoy pine nuts or sunflower seeds.

3. Your pet is stressed/too highly aroused

If your pet is not familiar with training he may be too stressed or highly aroused to even want to eat. Start somewhere your pet is very comfortable, ask for easy behaviours, and end the session early. Some pets have to learn to enjoy training – it is worth the effort!

food motivated dog trainer

Some people choose to further manage their pets diet to increase their motivation for food during training, but in most cases no management further than feeding set amounts at set times (like you would to maintain your pets healthy body condition) is required. For some pets any treat, any time will do! We can work with you to figure out how best to motivate your pet during training.

And of course it’s not always about the food. The goal in positive-reinforcement training is to use food as a reward only occasionally in the long run. Once learned, a behaviour can be maintained using a range of secondary reinforces such as petting, praise, toys, and affection. It’s not about the treats, it’s about the motivation, and science has shown us again and again that food is the fastest way to hitting those early training goals!

Is your dog ready for Group Training?

Group training classes are one of the most common training options out there for pet dog owners. They provide dog owners with guidance on dog training, an opportunity to make new friends, and to practice training their dogs with lots of distractions around. These are all wonderful things for dog owners to practice and be involved in. Unfortunately many owners are looking for something else when they enquire about group training.

group dog training

Whether due to a lack of early socialisation, a negative experience, genetic predisposition, or a host of other possibilities, many owners find that their pet dog is not as sociable with other dogs as they expect he should be. Most people envision that dogs should happily greet other dogs, romping around with them at the park and playing joyfully. Many dogs lack the social skills to be able to meet those expectations, and their owners find they either have a timid, shy, or aggressive dog in the presence of other dogs, or a rambunctious and over-excitable canine who is forever chasing and jumping on innocent bystanders.

Owners of these dogs phone and enquire about group training classes, hoping that their dog will be socialised with other dogs during the course and their problem will be solved. This is not something the average training class is set up for, and attending with your nervous or excitable dog could actually make their problem much worse.

For a nervous, timid, or shy dog, being put in a situation where they are in close proximity to a number of other dogs for prolonged durations is likely to make them more nervous. Stress inhibits learning, so they are unlikely to be able to focus on the training exercises. If they begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable, they may display behaviours such as cowering, growling, or even snapping. They are not learning that other dogs are no threat.

For the over-excited dog, imagine trying to study or concentrate at a theme park! Not going to happen! Unfortunately, many owners react instinctively to feeling embarrassed by the bouncing fool at the end of their leash, and may use leash corrections or other harsh methods to try to settle their dogs. This can increase their frustration. Not only this, but it can result in these dogs associating being around other dogs with unpleasant experiences – this is a recipe for disaster if your goal is a settled and social dogs.

Treat. Play. Love. strongly recommends commencing one-on-one training with these types of dogs prior to signing up for group training classes. There are a range of fun exercises you can do at home and on walks with your dog to help them relax and look forward to good things happening in the presence of other dogs. It should always be our top priority to set our pets up for success. Don’t throw your dog in the deep end! Take on board what they are telling you with their body language, and work to help them overcome their limitations.