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Dog Training Seminars: What Can You Learn?

K9 Magazine contributor and columnist Mike Deathe is a well respected animal trainer and behaviourist. He recently attended a seminar conducted by Dr. Ian Dunbar and has since redefined his entire approach to dog training. This feature is in three parts and details just how influential that seminar was on Mike Deathe.

If you think you understand everything about how dogs learn, after reading this you may have to do what Mike did and reconsider.

I spent three days sitting in a conference room listening to Dr. Ian Dunbar talk about dogs, training and learning theory; and somewhere during day three I had an epiphany.

You see, I have a degree in psychology and always thought I really understood learning theory. But during this seminar, I started looking at learning theory in a different way. I am not sure if this was Dr. Dunbar’s intention, but it radically changed the way I look at the subject.

In college I learned several different premises under the auspices of “learning theory,” but each was taught individually as a “stand alone” idea. After hearing Dr Dunbar speak, I realised that the three major corner stone’s of learning are actually pieces of a much larger and complete way of looking at learning. I was originally looking at this based on how it would apply for dogs, but as I flesh this concept out, I think this will transcend dog training and help explain successful training for all. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the three cornerstones of learning theory and their “fathers.” Thorndike, addressed - do it right=reward, do it wrong=punishment or binary learning. Skinner (operant conditioning) covered the four quadrants of punishment and rewards. Pavlov (classical conditioning) champions learning through associations, either positive or negative.

Thorndike’s law of effect states: The law of effect principle developed by Edward Thorndike suggested that responses, closely followed by satisfaction, will become firmly attached to the situation and therefore more likely to reoccur when the situation is repeated. Conversely, if the situation is followed by discomfort, the connections to the situation will become weaker and the behaviour of response is less likely to occur when the situation is repeated. In essence here, we are speaking of binary learning, learning that occurs through one of two choices and their eventual result…positive or negative, reward or punishment, black or white.

B.F. Skinner, whom many would say is the father of operant conditioning, provided us the following: Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour. This association is where positive dog training has taken its lead from - the four quadrants; positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement and negative punishment. Suffice it to say though; many who claim to be positive reinforcement trainers only rely on one of the four quadrants. Those who many consider to be “aversive” or positive punishment trainers again only rely on one of the four quadrants…albeit a different one. The other two quadrants, even though proven in the laboratory, are much less used methods in dog training, and care best described as torture/nagging (negative reinforcement) and the giving of a time out or being grounded (negative punishment).

Dog Training Seminars: What Can You Learn?

Ivan Pavlov is credited by many as defining the key to classical conditioning and it is a technique used in behavioural training, especially in dog training. A naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Then, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response. The way I have always thought of this is to make associations either positive (reinforcing) or negative (scary or threatening) from a dog training perspective.

I do not want to get into which of these three is right or which is wrong. I would much rather look at them as a whole, realising that each is simply a part of yet another larger and more complete theory on learning; where each existing and proven theory plays a vital role in the dog being able to learn and retain the knowledge. In many cases, the existing learning theories have brought dog training light years into the future; but because we are human, it has allowed us as trainers to segment and alienate certain parts of training as right or wrong. We have even allowed ourselves to demonize certain aspects of learning as cruel. If I learned anything in college, it was that you can prove anything with statistics and logic. So now we have a situation where dog training, which has made huge leaps in the last 25 years, has now bottlenecked to a standstill. This is because we are more interested in who is right, rather than what is the most comprehensive and best way for the dogs to learn.

If you look at any hot button argument in the world today there are always two sides, and the opposite ends of the spectrum are the loudest and most vocal for their respective sides. Remember that we were taught in statistics about something called the standard deviation (or bell) curve? It simply tells us that for any population, 12.5% will fall on each of the far ends of the population, but 75% will fall somewhere in the middle and out of the extremes. I really want to stress here that because of this right and wrong, black and white, positive and negative perspective that has been at the forefront of dog training of late, we are now creating dogs that have very little reliability; and in the end don’t really know what we humans want or expect from them. With that being said, I firmly believe that the reality, the truth, the answer to reliability and more successful dog training(whatever you want to call it) falls in that 75%, the biggest section of the bell curve.

Dr. Dunbar, in his seminar, had a really unique 1-2-3-4 process for teaching dogs that moves them through the Cue (1), Lure (2), behaviour (3) and Reward (4). The uniqueness of this process is that, over time, you eliminate steps 2 and 4 leaving you only a cue and the behaviour, as well as a dog that does not require lure or reward because they are working for life rewards or the positive feeling created just by giving the behaviours. The first thing you do is 1-2-3-4 which gets you the behaviour. Then you will do 1-3-4 to teach and/or learn the behaviour. Finally you will only have to do 1 and 3. Now you have a dog that is given the cue and responds to the behaviour, all because of the process of learning. A real life example might be teaching a child to clean their room. Early on, the parent has to tell the child to clean the room (cue) and then show the child how to clean their room and offer some enticement (say an after-school snack) to get the ball rolling (lure). The behaviour is easy - cleaning their room, and the reward is - let’s say - an allowance. As time goes on, the parent most likely still has to tell the child to clean their room, but does not have to entice them to do it, because the allowance is sufficient to get the behaviour. Fast forward many years and the child owns his/her own home. Guess what? If the house is dirty (cue) they clean it (behaviour.) Why…the pride of seeing their own home clean (life reward.).

About Mutz R Us

Muttz R Us was founded in 2009 by me and my wife Kate. Several years earlier I decided to quit my job as a district manager of an automotive care firm and became a stay at home dad. Kate worked for the Federal Government and was traveling up to three weeks a month. Between the two of us we decided one of us should take a step back so that someone was home with the kids. We have two boys, Donovan and Dylan.

Life went on, with me being Mr. Mom (my love and respect go out to all the stay-at-home moms and dads…it’s harder than it looks.) I told Kate “I’ve got to get a part-time job.” After 15 years of being in the workforce, I needed something besides game shows and soap operas while the kids were in school.

I took a part-time job at a national pet supply chain and before I knew it, I became a dog trainer. A passion was born. I have had dogs since I was four years old and currently my family owns four. We have three muttz, Penny, Lexie and Bear, and we also have a Purebred (yes, even I own a purebred.) Leonberger named Leo. She was adopted, just like my other three muttz. She is sight impaired with roughly 70% vision loss, which adds a different aspect to socialization and training for a dog.

I primarily train on weekends, which are the same two days the company I work for invites adoption groups into the store. I regularly saw the number of dogs and cats that never found a home. It made me wonder how many people actually realise the number of wonderful and viable pets that are wanting and needing loving homes.

We decided that "Adopt a Pet, Save A Life" should be our philanthropic motto. We paired that along with our desire to help animal organizations raise funds and came up with T-shirts to make fun of our Purebred cousins (remember, I own one too..), and "Ta Da.", Muttz "R" Us was born.

About Dr. Dunbar

Veterinarian, animal behaviourist, and dog trainer, Dr. Ian Dunbar received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology & Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University) plus a doctorate in animal behaviour from the Psychology Department at UC Berkeley, where he researched the development of social hierarchies and aggression in domestic dogs.

He has authored numerous books and DVDs about puppy/dog behaviour and training, including AFTER You Get Your Puppy, How To Teach A New Dog Old Tricks and the SIRIUS® Puppy Training video.

In 1982, Dr. Dunbar designed and taught the world's very first off-leash puppy socialization and training classes -- SIRIUS® Puppy Training. Subsequently, he created and developed the San Francisco SPCA's Animal Behavior Department, the American Kennel Club's Gazette "Behavior" column, which he wrote for seven years, and the K9 GAMES®, which were first held in San Francisco in 1993 and continue as annual events in Japan and France. He hosted the popular UK television series Dogs With Dunbar for five seasons and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including the Today Show (US) and Dash Village (Japan).

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