Why “Ah!!” Didn’t Work
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
When prospective buyers of our pups come here to work with me to learn our training methods they will sometimes hear me make a distinct but odd sound (in fact I couldn’t figure out how to spell it) to interrupt the behavior of a dog in front of me. I don’t generally have to say it very loudly and most of the time I am successful at getting the attention of the dog and changing his behavior by then asking for a new behavior.
Recently one of the buyers of a dog of mine let me know she tried this word and it didn’t work so she had to use a different one; I suspect she used a more corrective response instead because that type of training is what she is most familiar with. Now, I like and admire this person. She has three of my dogs so obviously I also trust her. She is trying to understand these less familiar training skills in an effort to honor how my dogs have been trained and her commitment to me. What she shared with me seems like a good blog topic so here goes….
Why didn’t it work? Two words: training history.
I know I often teach through using analogies; this type of learning helps me remember things. I hope you’ll forgive me but I have a couple of them to use in clarifying what I mean by training history.
I am very successful in training my pups; not because I am a magical trainer or because I use special words. My success is due to the training history I have with my dogs.
Training history is not the same thing as being friends with my dogs. The analogy I came up with is this: A friend may listen to music with me; a trainer can teach me how to play the notes. Both sorts of people are valuable in my life and there can be quite a bit of crossover in their roles in my life, but they also different.
Because I have been part of the pups’ lives for several months and do frequent clicker training sessions with them I have extensive training history with them. There have been MANY times that I have “marked” their behavior; this means that I have identified for them, using my clicker or my spoken marker word, exactly what behavior I want to see more of. Then I have “reinforced” that behavior. I give something of value to the pup, closely following the marker. This may be a piece of string cheese, but it may also be just my voice or cuddles. It needs to be something the dog likes. Giving the dog something he likes right after he gives me the behavior I want makes it more likely that he will give me the behavior in the future. The important piece of this is the marker – just feeding treats isn’t the same thing.
Dogs become addicted to this kind of training. If I interrupt a behavior, and then ask for –cue- a different behavior, I get a big response from my dogs because of all the fun history they have with the cue and with working with me. So, even if the new owner does exactly what they have seen me do with my dogs they will not get the same response from the dogs because they do not have training history with them. The good news is that is easy to change.
Mark – then reinforce, that’s the mantra. Using a marker that is not the spoken word is retained better by the dog. In my case I use a plastic clicker. So, new owner, go out and find clickable moments and pay away! What is a clickable moment? Here are a few easy, common ones:
eye contact four paws on the ground resting quietly near sheep looking at you when you speak the dog’s name the dog allowing you to pick up his feet to handle his toenails manding walking forward with you instead of standing in your way – I’m thinking of when I do chores
I really think the list is endless. My rule of thumb is if I am near the dog and happy with him he’s probably doing some portion of behavior that I can mark and thank him for. And then there are all the valuable skills you can teach with the clicker such as Touch and Look; you will find a blog about this on my site. Both these easy to teach behaviors can be used to redirect a dog but they also just give you lots of opportunities to add to your trust training bank account.
Here’s an example: If my dog is chasing sheep he’s probably having a good time doing it so if I am going to ask him to stop I’d better be prepared to offer him something he likes even more. One hundred “mark and reinforce” experiences are a big carrot to dangle. Ten “mark and reinforce” experiences may not be.
When your dog ignores you he has provided you with very valuable information. You now know that maybe you asked to much too soon, or asked it in a way the dog didn’t understand, or that what you asked was too difficult for the dog, or simply that you still have some training history points to build. Training is a very fluid process; seldom is it pass/fail, so don’t be hard on yourself or your dog if things didn’t go as planned. Kiss your dog and try again, and reach out for mentoring from trusted resources as you need to.