Train It, then Name It

When teaching any pet a new behaviour we need to do two things – we need to explain to our pets what we want them to do, and we need to give that behaviour a name (or cue). If we do these two things correctly we end up with a pet who will offer that particular behaviour only when prompted by the cue, and most importantly they will offer it when given the cue.

Most of us, myself included, were taught to go about achieving these two things backwards. We repeat the cue that we would like to use, while trying to make our pets do the correct behaviour. “Sit, Fido!” as we lure our dog’s nose up or push on their bottom, “Step Up, Polly!” as we bring out the sunflower seed or push our finger into our budgie’s belly. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. But is it an efficient, clear, and fun way to teach our pet something new?

Let’s take a look!

The biggest problem with teaching this way is that we are setting our pet up to fail. If they don’t yet understand that “Sit” means put your butt on the ground, or “Step Up” means step onto my finger, then they are quite likely to respond to our chanting the cue incorrectly. They might stare at us blankly, walk away in confusion, or try the wrong behaviour. We get frustrated that they’re not getting it, and they get frustrated that they’re not earning their reward!

So how else could we go about training?

shake hands parrot
Elmo has learnt that “Shakes Hands” means hold this finger.

Say we want to teach our dog to “Sit”. First things first, zip your lips! Your pet does not speak English, and verbal direction at this stage is unhelpful. In this example we will start training using a food reward. We take the treat, move it in front of Fido’s nose, and then slowly raise it above his head. As Fido’s nose follows the treat his head goes up and his butt goes down. Bingo! He’s sitting. Job well done! Now we can work on fading that lure into a hand signal, then we can explain that “Hey, you know when your butt hits the ground? That’s called SIT!”

It is very, very easy to train your pet to offer a certain behaviour, such as in the above example, without ever opening your mouth. This means that when we do add in the name for a behaviour, we can use our body language to ensure our pet responds correctly – we know they will, because we’ve already trained it! Imagine how much less frustrating that is for everyone!

But won’t our pets associate our cue with the behaviour faster if we keep repeating it? No, they won’t. By putting our pet in a situation where they may not respond correctly we are muddying our cue. When i ask my pet to do something, i am asking them to respond correctly first try. If they don’t, i zip my lips and find where the holes are in my training. Maybe i need to go back a few steps. Hearing a cue repeated again and again before actually understanding what they need to do only creates confusion. Does “Sit” mean look up, look left, yawn, scratch, sniff, squat, or what?!

It’s about training smart, and setting our pets up for success without confusion.

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Pass the Salt, Please

You may be wondering what salt has to do with training your pets, so let me explain.

In a e-Book by Sue Ailsby that i’ve been reading (which you can download FREE here), she wrote something that really left an impression with me. She wrote that we should cue our pets to do something just like we would ask a friend to pass the salt across the table. That is we should ask our pets in a happy and friendly tone, rather than telling them what to do in a stern voice.

pass the salt

Why should this matter? For me it comes down to training. If you’ve truly put the time into teaching your pet what a cue means, and you’ve demonstrated that when he does the job he’ll get something good, then you should never need to get stern. If they don’t oblige, you either haven’t trained the behaviour well enough yet, or you need to increase their motivation.

Too often we see owners really getting frustrated with their pets, especially in the dog world. “Fido sit. Sit! SIT! SIT DOWN!!!” Eventually Fido might sit, but not with enthusiasm. He might only be sitting to avoid his owners wrath, or a leash pop, or a hand pressing down on his backside. If Fido knew that “Sit” means put your bottom on the ground whether we’re at home, outside, or at the vet, and he had been motivated well to perform that “Sit”, then there would be no need to get stern.

A friendly tone induces friendly feelings, and when we treat our pets with kindness and mutual respect THAT is when we see great training results. We are way past the days of drilling obedience into our pets. We have the tools to teach our pets any number of useful behaviours without using force or corrections. Next time your pet fails to listen to your cue, look at how you can train the behaviour rather than increasing the volume of your voice.

Train smart, not tough – and pass the salt, please!

Training Talk: Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers

People really like to get their panties in a twist when it comes to using treats when training their pets. It seems as though treats make you a lesser trainer, or that it is somehow insulting that your pet will work for food. This instalment of “Training Talk” will explain why food makes such a great reinforcer during training, as well as looking at other reinforcers we can use and when to use them.

In the first “Training Talk” blog we looked at reinforcement, and how when we reinforce a behaviour that our pet is offering we will see it more often. But how do we reinforce a behaviour? When training our pets we can use what we call either primary reinforcers or secondary reinforcers.

primary reinforcer is something that is essential to our pets survival, and therefore is a very motivating thing to work for. Common primary reinforcers are food, water, air, shelter, and sex. Now personally I’m not into depriving my pets of water or air, nor am I likely to put them out in the hot sun and make them train for the opportunity to get some shelter. I’m definitely not going to offer them any “special favours”, so to speak, for a job well done either. That leaves us with food. All animals eat. In my blog post “Is Your Pet Food Motivated” I look at reasons why your pet might not want to eat during a training session, as well as how to remedy the problem. I recommend you read that post if you feel your pet won’t work for food.

dog treats
An assortment of dog treats

Now, many people who oppose positive reinforcement suggest that for food to be an effective reinforcer you must first deprive your pet of food so they are hungry. It is true that most animals won’t work for food if they’re full, but we don’t need to starve them to train either. I like to use food rewards that are either part of your pets daily ration, or something extra tasty that only comes in a training session.

Secondary reinforcers are things that aren’t essential to survival, but over time and by being paired with a primary reinforcer (like food) have come to be motivating and enjoyable to your pet. Common examples are petting and praise, or a great game with a favourite toy. For many pets these things don’t mean much initially, but over time and when paired with things your dog really enjoys, they come to be reinforcing to your pet.

Secondary reinforcers are not as motivating as primary reinforcers, which is why trainers recommend teaching new behaviours using food rewards. Once that behaviour is learned it is actually to your advantage to start mixing it up with how you reinforce your pet – you would work harder too if a bonus could be just around the corner!

toy play reinforcer
Wilbur loves training for a game of tug!

Take care when training with secondary reinforcers. Remember that reinforcement is an individual thing. If you are offering a pat or praise, make sure you pet is offering the behaviour more often. If not, it is not being reinforced – try something more fun or tastier!