I wrote this post last weekend while at a dog show in LA. Now I am in MD by way of SC.....I am starting to feel like my own "where's waldo" picture....
I have talked in previous posts about how exceptionally observant our dogs are. This is one of the things that makes them great; they have an outstanding ability to notice things and to mark those behaviors/items/ actions that result in reinforcement. Unfortunately they also notice the things that lead to bad consequences as well as good ones. And once those "signposts" are in place they are hard to eliminate; especially when they tell the dog how he should feel rather than act. When I try to explain what I mean by this I find it effective to use a great experience of my own.
When I attended the basic training school at the police academy we were required to be at the Academy from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. Our training was military like in its instruction and the first couple of weeks were designed to apply a significant amount of stress on the recruits. There were several reasons for this; one being to weed out the ones who could not function well under stress. Those people were obviously not cut out for law enforcement. Our instructors were very gifted at finding ways to apply stress to almost every aspect of our daily routine and whatever your weakness (be it physical or mental) they were going to find it.
The road leading to the Academy grounds went through a pair of tall stone pillars and up a long steep hill. Every Monday morning I would drive through the gate and upon passing through the pillars and heading up the hill my stomach would drop and I would feel slightly nauseous. Friday afternoon seemed to be an eternity away. Years later, having long since graduated from the basic class, I would routinely return to the Academy for in service training. This was not at all unpleasant, usually interesting classes and we were treated like the professionals that we were. Then I began returning to the academy for police canine training. Something very enjoyable with no stress involved at all. However every time I passed through those pillars I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and would feel nauseous for a second. There was no current cause of it, it was just a firmly developed signpost in my brain that signified upcoming stress and pressure.
Transfer this to training a dog for an exercise with potential for confusion. There are so many potential examples but I will use the scent discrimination exercise since I was talking about it in a recent blog post. This exercise involves using a bag of metal and leather obstacles - people usually keep these in a canvas and mesh bag and in order to avoid handling them they are dumped out from the bag. Thus a distinctive metal article rattling sound. This is a relatively simple exercise for the dog; however people sometimes inadvertently create confusion due to the manner that they teach it. I wonder for how many dogs, even ones who have learned the exercise well, is that sound a signpost for potential stress and pressure.
We need to be very careful in our training to avoid creating signposts to the dog that tell them unpleasant things are likely to happen. I am not talking in this case regarding compulsion or punishment but rather signposts that tell the dog about how the environment is likely to feel. I am at a dog show today so those examples are more obvious but they occur in all aspects of our training, regardless of what we are teaching the dog to do.
How about this for an example of a signpost with lots of clue to the dog that no reinforcement is going to happen for the dog:
there are lots of strange dogs around
there are large square areas with mats and bounded by white gates
handler is breathing faster
handler is talking to me less
handler is focusing on another person nearby
there is no reward upon completion of an exercise
(in training no rewards usually means incorrect behavior)