A lot of people have enjoyed seeing what my friend Marge Rogers decided to teach her puppy first. She taught Zip (and continues to teach him) that she is FUN. So I asked her what she was going to teach him second. (I love to watch her training, too!)
She said, “Now I’m going to teach him that learning is fun.”
Teaching a Dog that Learning is Fun
Why would this be so important that Marge would embark on it so early on? Doesn’t she need to train Zip how to behave acceptably?
First, we need to shake the notion that training is something we do to the dog. It is something we do with the dog. Then, it wouldn’t hurt to drop the “obedience” model from the back of our minds. With positive reinforcement-based training, we can get something better than obedience. We can build a joyful, trusting partnership between two species, and along the way we can ease our dog’s path into the weird human world.
And right along with that: Using aversives in training is known to inhibit learning. If you went to math class and the teacher hit you over the head with a ruler every time you got the answer wrong, you could still learn math. It probably wouldn’t be your favorite subject and you probably wouldn’t learn it as fast as you would if you enjoyed it.
What if, instead, the teacher valued above all that the student be happy, relaxed, and enjoying himself, and did all in her power to make that happen? This is not only humane and kind, but also very practical. If Zip is “in the game,” if he and Marge are partners, he will value the game. She can help him build resiliency. If at some point she makes mistakes or gives unclear information, he’ll keep trying. And that’s where we see that the partnership works both ways. Zip will teach Marge to formulate training plans, improve observation skills, and work through timing errors.
Marge goes so far as to say, “At this stage, the behaviors I’m teaching him don’t really matter.” Wow. So obviously true, yet so radical.
What she wants, what she values, and what she is building: an eager student.
A dog can learn a behavior at any age if he has the physical skills to do it and the trainer has the mechanical skills to teach it. That’s why the lesson right now is two-way communication.
If learning is fun for him, Marge can teach him anything.
What Do They Practice?
So, what did Marge show us in Lesson 2? Keep in mind that the actual behaviors they work on are less important that the growing partnership. But I know some of you will be curious about some of what they do, so here is a list with short explanations.
- Name training. She is teaching him that hearing his name predicts something great. He is learning to shift his attention immediately to her when he hears his name. The name game builds a positive classical association to hearing his name and to her, and also builds a recall.
- Puppy retrieve (with optional somersaults!). What all is this good for? Let us count the ways. It is an interactive, cooperative game. It’s great for exercise: it drains the dog’s tank, but not the owner’s. It’s a great interaction for kids and dogs. Also, Zip is rehearsing returning to her and releasing things to her. Deposits into those “Let Go of Stuff” and “Return to Me” accounts are always good!
- Impulse control. Just about all of life with dogs boils down to impulse control, doesn’t it? Many “good dog” behaviors share the principles of that exercise: do not help yourself to things you want. Look at your person when there’s something you want. Do it in the face of distractions (starting with a food distraction).
- Turns. Those are some agility moves Marge is making, and they teach some nice lessons. Prime among them are moving with Marge, turning, and switching seamlessly from being on Marge’s left to her right. For many of us, the days of teaching our dogs to walk exclusively on the left side are long gone.
- Perch work. This is for both hind end awareness and strength. It will help in sports, everyday coordination, and tight turns for competition heeling. Plus cool stuff like a “tuck sit” as you can see at the end of this short video.
- Hand targeting. Hand targeting teaches puppies that hands near their face are a good thing. It teaches them to use their nose on hands instead of puppy teeth. It is a foundation behavior for a recall. The dog is at point A, and you want them with you at point B: use a hand target. Marge says it is a great way to start a training dialogue.
- Experiencing new things. Just like in Lesson 1, Marge is continuing to introduce Zip to new things. Can you see that she has made it more challenging? Dogs are great discriminators, and as they get older are quick to categorize things as abnormal and scary if they haven’t seen them before. So the more surprising and rare stuff she can show Zip, as long as it happens with good associations, the better. What she shows in the movie is the tip of the iceberg. She is taking him every day for different levels of observation of and interaction with the world.
- Conditioning praise. Did you hear all the utterances of “Good boy good boy good boy”? This is not just filler. Dogs find repeated sound stimulating. You’ll hear that kind of repetition from many good trainers when they are having an exciting fun time with their dogs. But also: how many times in his life is Zip going to hear “good boy” and get a treat or special play? Answer: a lot. Marge is also conditioning praise as a secondary reinforcer. If she keeps it conditioned well, the phrase by itself will gain some reinforcing power. This is another foundation she is laying down in their training relationship.
What About Sit, Down, and Stay?
Have you noticed the absence of certain behaviors that many of us are brought up to believe are the absolute foundation of proper dog behavior? How come Marge hasn’t taught Zip to sit or lie down, or stay on cue?
[8/26/14 Edited to remove a comparison with traditional training that wasn’t quite accurate. Thanks, reader S.T.] It’s not really that she isn’t reinforcing sit and down. They are some of the many behaviors of his that she is capturing and reinforcing in contexts. She is putting money in the bank for later. She has Zip’s whole life to teach him specific behaviors and put them on cue. Now is the time to establish a bond, show him that certain things pay off bigtime, to reinforce a large variety of desirable behaviors in an informal way; to teach him that learning and trying stuff aren’t scary. This will give Zip a palette of behaviors to default to in life situations. Sit and down are definitely in the palette, and a tiny puppy “stay” is developing as she waits a little longer and holds eye contact a little longer. And the more of these good behaviors he knows, the less time Marge will have to spend diminishing undesirable ones.
And the verbal cue thing? Believe it or not, you really don’t need word cues at this point. Zip has already picked up situational cues to do certain things. Dogs are geniuses at this; so good at it that we don’t even notice it half the time. We think they know a verbal cue but they are really reading the situation. Zip is already developing a default sit (you can see that in the impulse control section), eye contact, and can walk nicely on a leash. A word is just a label. There will be time for that.
Have you shown your puppy or dog that learning is fun? (And what do you think Marge’s next lesson will be?)
Other Good Stuff
P.S. Editorial remark: I’m so glad Marge didn’t say she’s “teaching Zip how to learn.” I’ve always thought that was a very human-centric thing to say. Animals already know how to learn. Many of our problems come from the fact that they learn stuff that we don’t want them to. Marge is teaching Zip how to be her dog, have fun with her, communicate with her, solve problems, and be happy in a human world. And with her gradual challenges, she is helping him develop his brain power.