Monday, May 2, 2016

Force Free Dog Training: Start With A Puppy

One thing that you can do to make any force free dog training activity easier is to start with a puppy.

Some time ago, I was asked how I would go about force free dog training a recall.  As I started to write this up, I quickly realized that this would take several installations.  Long text just doesn't work on the internet.  Its the internet age...we all have short attention spans...Ooo!  Squirrel!

Teaching recall, or really any force free dog training tends to be easier with a puppy.  Can it be done with an older dog?  Sure!  But with an older dog, it *might be* complex and *may* turn into a very long slog.

With a puppy, you have a blank slate.  The dog has no prior experiences and has formed no prior associations.  The trainer can then form the associations between behaviors and consequences.  with an older or adult dog, these same associations may have already been formed, and in a way that is contrary to what you want to see.

Let me try to explain by example.

By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK (My wifes dog running to the sea....) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bolting Dog
You have an adult dog who bolts out the front door and runs the neighborhood.  This behavior did not happen in a vacuum.  At some point in time, the little rebel decided to release himself on his own recognizance.  Maybe there was a squirrel in the front yard.  Maybe the dog has a lot of run in him.  Who knows.  But what we do know is that that first time he did that, he had a lot of fun.  He got to explore.  He got to chase squirrels, birds and rabbits.  Anything novel is a big reward for a dog, so the newness of it all was great fun.  Plus the game of chase was a hoot.  And every time the dog bolts, the same level of fun is encountered.

The dog has an association between bolting and fun and freedom.  Since bolting continues to be fun, it is a behavior which rewards itself.

A Blank Slate
Now consider a puppy.  The pup has not bolted.  He has never explored the neighborhood.  In fact, if the pup is quite young, the front yard might be scary.  The dog has formed no association between bolting and fun.

Anytime you enter into force free dog training, you help the dog create an association between a behavior and a consequence.  If the dog already has an association, then the new consequences you provide have to be better and bigger than the results he already knows.  The dog must not be allowed to get that result any more, all the while providing a new result that is really good.  The dog has to "unlearn" the old association while learning the new one.  The unlearning part is what can be a long journey.

But with a puppy, there is no unlearning stage.  All that is required is to create the association you want the dog to remember.

So, as you venture into a reduced force or force free dog training plan, try to do it with a puppy.  It will make your job and the dog;'s job a lot easier.  If your little rebel is all grown up, just prepare yourself for the possibility of a long training journey.