The Basics of Training
A primer on the science of dog training5 minute read
The parts of dog training aren’t complicated. It’s a science more than an art and one that’s been studied since domestication first began. People have been doing this for a long time.
Still, even simple things can seem complicated and overwhelming at first, so below we provide you a sort of cheat sheet for the basics of training. You’ll find an overview of simple techniques as well as helpful formulas for achieving success with Harper.
- Marking “yes” - Marking “yes” means saying “yes” when your dog has done something you want. Giving your dog a treat also does that but sometimes it’s not always possible to give the treat right way, so instead, you condition your pup to know that “yes” means he will get a treat.
- Giving praise - You also want to praise your dog when he does something right. Why? Well, believe it or not, your approval is a positive reinforcer and sometimes stronger than a treat. You can give praise by saying things like “good boy” in a very upbeat and positive tone. Chin scratches (which are often preferred over head pats) and belly rubs are also great ways to give praise.
- Giving treats - Treats should be small enough that you can give 15-20 treats without filling him up. Expect to give 20-30 pea sized bits treats for a session. The food you feed your dog at meal time can work very well as a treat. When you need something more powerful, fresh foods, cut up hot dogs, leftover chicken, and mild but firm cheese can also be great treats.
- Jackpotting and withdrawing treats - Jackpotting treats is when you give your dog a bunch of treats for a behavior when you’d previously only given one. Withdrawing treats is the technique of gradually not treating every time a correct behavior is given. Both are methods for creating intermittent reinforcement which is crucial to both keeping training interesting as well as ensuring that your pup won’t stop giving behaviors when you stop giving treats.
- Generalizing a behavior - Generalizing a behavior means training your dog to perform a behavior under a variety of circumstances. For example, your dog may sit when you’re in the living room, but will he still sit when you’re in the kitchen? To generalize a behavior you’ll want to alter things like the location, distance (i.e. between you and the dog, duration (how long you ask for the behavior), and level of distraction.
- Verbal cues - Behaviors should only be put on a cue after the dog knows the behavior and verbal cues should almost exclusively be said in a positive tone. Angrily saying “down” doesn’t yield the best results. Also, it’s important not to repeat your verbal cues. If you say “down” and your dog doesn’t give you the behavior you want, don’t say “down” again lest your pup think that the verbal cue is actually “down down down.”
- You’re always training - You may understand the difference between dedicated training time and just hanging out time, but your dog doesn’t. As far as your dog is concerned, it’s all training. It’s important to be aware of this because it may help you understand why your dog is always under your feet when you’re at the grill. Did you throw him a burnt hotdog once when he did that? Maybe you forgot, but he didn’t.
- Sessions should be short - A training session with a puppy might be 30 seconds. Even with adult dogs, focused training sessions should probably not be longer than 5 minutes. There are some exceptions and training can also be fun for your dog and thus viewed as a treat, but expect most training sessions to be short.
- Your dog should succeed on ~80% of reps - Any less than that and your dog likely won’t find the rate of reinforcement motivating enough to continue. This means if your dog is failing half the time, you need to make the game easier or else your dog will get frustrated that the treats are coming fast enough.
- Remove opportunities for your dog to be wrong - It’s harder to stop a trained behavior than to train a new one. If your dog learns he can get some delicious food by knocking over the kitchen trash can, it’s very hard to get him to not do that. That’s why you’ll want to remove opportunities for your dog to make a mistake. Don’t leave shoes out for him to chew. Don’t set your bowl of popcorn on the coffee table and leave it alone with your dog while you go to the bathroom. Once your dog matures and you have established a strong foundation of training, these things will become less of a risk, but especially early on, you want to be conscious of the opportunities you’re giving your dog to do something you don't want.
- Only use your dog’s name when giving praise. Never use it for something negative - Unless you want your dog to hate his name of course.
- Enforce the Premack Principle - The Premack Principle says that in order for your pup to get what he wants, he has to first give you what you want. Use this in conjunction with the idea that you’re always training. Your dog wants his food? First he needs to sit. He wants to go for a walk? First he needs to calm down and sit. If you follow this consistently your dog will start trying to guess what behaviors you want. He’ll start sitting before you even ask. If he does this, then you know for sure he understand the Premack Principle and that his own choices determine whether he gets what he wants.
- Have fun - If you forget to have fun, you're likely to get angry with your dog. If at any point you get frustrated and you’re not having fun, you should end the session immediately. Give your dog a jackpot of treats to make up for the fact that you interrupted training (which might still be fun for the dog even if it wasn’t fun for you).