eileenanddogs

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The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

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 learningIf 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.

Zip holding tug large

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?

Zip profile 2Have 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.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Have you shown your puppy or dog that learning is fun? (And what do you think Marge’s next lesson will be?)

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (all)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

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.

The First Thing To Teach Your Puppy

The First Thing To Teach Your Puppy

My friend Marge has a new puppy, Zip, a Portuguese Water Dog. I just love what she decided to teach him first.

Marge is a professional trainer. Depending on Zip’s interest and aptitude, he may eventually be able to to help her in her business as a neutral dog, play therapy dog, or uncle dog. He’ll be introduced to a variety of fun dog sports. I think I heard whispers about agility as well as water dog sports. All these are possibilities, of course. No matter what his temperament, health, and inclinations, he will always be a beloved family pet.

Seaworthy's Won Direction "Zip"
Seaworthy’s Won Direction “Zip”

Marge said, “Do you know what the first thing I’m going to teach him is?” I didn’t know, but I figured it would be good.

“I’m going to teach him that I’m FUN.”

I have to say that was not what I expected, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

That first lesson accomplishes so many things.

  • It sets the tone for a lifetime bond.
  • It associates Marge with terrific things. Most of us get strong associations with food with our dogs. That happens almost automatically if we train with food, and if we are careful how and when we feed. (See my article “Double Your Money” in the Spring 2014 issue of BARKS magazine, page 19.) But in addition to being the provider of food, Marge is setting herself up as the entertainment center in her pup’s life. Via classical conditioning, she is building an association with herself to joy as well as nurturance.
  • Zip’s play with her is something he can learn to “take on the road.”
  • The behaviors that happen in the play (little proto behaviors that will be built on for skills later) get imbued with the fun–more classical conditioning.
  • Finally, fun and anxiety are mutually exclusive. Play creates a joyful world.

Marge’s lesson would not be appropriate–as a first lesson anyway– for every dog. She’s got a well bred, confident, socialized puppy (of a social breed, no less). She picked the sassy one of the litter. When we get a dog with a suboptimal or unknown history (Marge has had plenty of rescues too, I might add), the first lesson we often need to teach the dog is some version of  “You are safe.” Or “I won’t be mean to you.” Or, “We’ll always go at your speed; I won’t force you.” Those things look a bit different. What you see Marge doing in the video is appropriate for a confident, dare I say “pushy,” little guy.

But even with our fearful dogs, the sooner we can get some  joyful fun in their lives, the better. And the more I think about it, the more similar the approaches are. Whether you are showing the pup a rollicking good time or giving him a place to feel safe, you are prioritizing his emotional state over mere skills or obedience.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Do you see all the sub-lessons in the movie, all the bricks that Marge is laying for Zip’s future skills?

  • Zip is getting experience on stable and unstable surfaces, including a metal surface.
  • Zip is climbing through things that touch his legs.
  • He’s getting to put different things in his mouth and getting an outlet to chew and be mouthy.
  • He’s experiencing things that make sudden noises.
  • He is learning to tug.
  • He is learning to release and trade.
  • He is learning a puppy retrieve.
  • He’s learning that Marge will direct him to things that are OK to play with. (Did you notice that there is only one “real” dog toy in the whole video?)
  • He is learning to come when called.
  • He is learning to settle down and to be handled.

All this in a few minutes of play with a really fun lady.

Small tan puppy with black muzzle and tail looking up at camera
Clara on the day she arrived (about 10 weeks old)

I’m trying to remember the first things I taught Clara. In a four dog household, I think one of the first lessons was, “This is how you can happily fit into the group.” But I also taught her “You are safe with me.” (Actually I just remembered: The very very first thing I taught Clara was, “I have spray cheese, the ambrosia of your world.”)

I didn’t set about using play cleverly like Marge. Frankly, I let Zani babysit Clara a lot, since I was really in over my head with a geriatric dog, a reactive dog, and then a feral puppy, most of them incompatible with each other. If Clara and I hadn’t had such a strong bond, all that babysitting could have been a bad idea. Luckily Clara is up for just about any kind of fun with me, and has always played any kind of game I offered with enthusiasm. But I do wish I had been as deliberate as Marge in setting the stage for a playful relationship with Clara. Even more so with Zani, a born party girl.

I’ll remember for next time: there are some things that are even more important than sit and down. Build the relationship. Then the skills will likely be a piece of cake.

What was the first thing you taught your puppy or new dog?

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (all)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

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