I always stress the importance of consistency and want to make sure you know what that means, and why it is so important.
Animals Learn Patterns
Dogs, people, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, zebras – it doesn’t matter which animal you are taking about, learning is achieved through identifying patterns – and most importantly, the significance of the pattern. Predators in the wild pay attention to the pattern of their prey. The animals that are lower in the food chain pay attention to the pattern of the predators. All animals that survive are finely-tuned to danger and opportunities in their world.
Note: there are many types of learning including classical, operant, social facilitation, local enhancement, observational learning and verbal learning. In this post I am focusing on the importance of consistency, no matter which form of learning you are using to teach.
You Are an Animal Too
Think of a situation when you learned something new. It could have been as far back as learning the alphabet or maybe you always wanted to learn to play the guitar and recently started taking lessons. Think of the learning process for you. No matter which way you learn best, there is repetition involved for each component of the learning process.
When learning a musical instrument, you have to not only learn how to play chords, but you have to learn how to read a music chart, the rhythm of the song, the words and the timing. Did you pick up the guitar one time and learn the song? If you took a group class were there students that had difficulty with an aspect of a song that came more naturally to you?
If you had a good teacher, he or she broke down the song into bite-size components that you could grasp. You then probably practiced each element until you felt comfortable performing those elements together.
Dogs Pay Attention to Patterns All the Time
Now back to dog training. Dogs learn in a similar way. They learn individual elements of a pattern and then put those elements together. If their learned behavior has the potential for a reward, they are motivated to act in a certain way to increase their chances of receiving that reward. If we are talking about a wild animal, the environment cues them to do something, in your case, you provide cues to your dog.
Dogs pay attention to patterns all the time. Some patterns can be counter-productive. Dogs that develop Separation Anxiety pay attention the “pre-departure cues” that their person exhibits before leaving the house. Often people have a different pattern on their days off, so dogs eventually figure out the “work” pattern that results in the dog being alone for a period of time. If they are anxious when alone, they see the pattern developing and get anxious before the person is even out of the house. Watch your dog in the morning and see if they react when you grab your car keys, put down your coffee mug, or put your coat on.
How To Be a Better Dog Trainer
So, now that you know that dogs pay attention to patterns, you can use that knowledge to become a better trainer. If you are inconsistent in your patterns when teaching, your dog can get terribly confused.
Tips to be more consistent:
- Say cues one time. If you repeat cues and say it one time one day, and three times the next, you are not consistent. If your dog repeatedly doesn’t do the cue on the first time, use hand signals or move your dog to a less distracting environment and continue working.
- Make sure every one in the family is on the same page with all of the “house rules”. If you don’t want your dog to jump on people, make sure he NEVER gets rewarded for jumping. If you have to keep him on leash and gently move him away from people that pet him, then do that. Dogs often get blamed for being “stubborn” or “willful” or “alpha” (please!) because they are not behaving properly. When, in fact, each family member rewards different behaviors. What is the right answer? Make consistent rules and stick to them.
- Watch extraneous movements or sounds when training. If you say “sit” and bend over your dog while saying that, what happens when you stand upright or are sitting in a chair? Your dog doesn’t just pay attention to the specific information that you want him too. He sees it all and tries to learn the patterns. If the pattern changes, he will be confused.
- Proof behaviors. This is an extension of the last point. After you establish an understanding of what the cue is by teaching it with a consistent pattern, then you can start “proofing behaviors” by changing your body position slightly, sit on the ground vs. standing, turn your back and ask for the cue, etc. If your dog needs help after seeing the new version of the cue, help him out by luring with a treat or using a signal that he already knows. What you are doing is helping your dog realize that the variations of the cue all mean the same as the original cue that you taught him.
- Realize that dogs do not generalize. If you teach “sit” in the kitchen and then move to the living room, your dog will probably not perform as well. This is a new location with new distractions. Go back to the basics and re-teach the behavior. Once you have trained your dog in numerous locations, the next success in a new location will occur faster.
- Pay attention to syntax. “Come here” is not the same as “Come”. Which one do you want your dog to learn? See my post about teaching Come.
- Teach, and ask for, specific cues. “Drop it” and “Leave it” are different. See my post about the importance of consistency and syntax.
- Don’t get frustrated. If you are using a good reward, whether it is going outside, chasing a tennis ball, a belly rub or a treat, your dog wants to do the behavior that will result in the reward. If you are having trouble with a behavior, make sure you are consistent with your request.
- Have someone watch you train. Don’t tell them what you are working on and see if they can identify what you are asking for.
- Have them look for extraneous movements and sounds.
- Practice. You are learning patterns as much as your dog. Train your dog for at least 15 minutes per day broken down into small 2-5 minute segments.