ABC of Dog Training


How pooches learn?
It is very important to understand how animals learn. The acronym used by behaviourists is A, B, C, which refers to Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence. Antecedent is a command or cue. For example, you saying the word SIT is an ‘antecedent’ which is followed by the physical act of the dog sitting down, called the ‘behaviour’ and you giving a treat to your dog is a ‘consequence’. The most fundamental law of conduct states that Consequences drive Behaviours. This needs to be thoroughly understood and internalised by every person who wants to work with their dogs. The Antecedent has little or no effect on driving behaviour.
This means that your dog sits down because of what happened to him when he sat the previous 100 times, and not because you asked him to SIT! The dog SITs because of the history of rewards he received for sitting before. You saying the word SIT just tells the dog that this is a good opportunity for him to exhibit that behaviour and possibly earn a reward. Whether we like it or not, this is how dogs learn.
Aversive training – NEVER!
Aversive (Escape/Avoidance) training causes a depressed and stressed dog who does not want to work with you. Punishment achieves just one thing, it stops the learning process. Consequences can also be aversive. Physical pain, physical pressure, social pressure, denial of rewards are some examples of aversive consequences. A situation when a dog is made to SIT while causing physical pressure/pain on his neck with a choke chain and the dog sits to escape the pressure he feels. Now the consequence to the behaviour of sitting is escaping the pain.
Dogs trained with Escape/Avoidance methods retain the negative emotional baggage associated with the training cue even after the aversive is removed, i.e. if I have caused pain to my dog’s neck every time I pull on the choke chain while saying the word SIT, for say 50 times, the 51st time when I utter the word SIT, the dog experiences the same unpleasantness even if I am not pulling on the choke chain anymore, for the rest of his life. So, dogs trained with Escape/Avoidance methods continue to feel the discomfort even after the aversive is removed. Understandably, this makes the dog passive, slow and unreliable in following commands.
The worst side effect aversive training has is actually on the human who uses these methods. It has been scientifically proven that anger and violence are self reinforcing for the perpetrator, i.e. the person who is getting angry and violent is tricked by his own brain into believing that his anger had an effect on altering the behaviour of the ‘other’. So, he is more likely to continue and amplify the aggressive and violent behaviour, which he carries with him all the time. So, if not for your dog, train with positive methods at least for your own sake.
Positive training – key to well-behaved, happy and active dog
Dogs trained with positive consequences and rewards on the other hand are active dogs. They are enthusiastic and want to learn new things. They are reliable and fast in learned behaviours because just like how the Escape/Avoidance trained dogs carry the pain long after the pain causing agent is removed, the positively trained dogs too carry the good emotional baggage of the training cues for which they got rewarded 100s of  times even after the rewarding has stopped.
How to use positive training?
How does one go about training a dog using positive methods? This is the method used to train almost all the guide dogs, service dogs, military working dogs, sniffer dogs, dolphins, sea lions, horses, elephants, etc in all advanced countries. The holy grail of positive training is called ‘Marker Training’ or ‘Clicker Training’. Marker Training is the most effective way to teach any animal any behaviour and the mechanics of it can be easily learnt by any person, of any age. Marker Training needs NO physical pressure or violence and therefore enables even a six years old to train a 40 kg Doberman. You do not have to be stronger or faster or more dominant than your dog. With Marker Training,
you are training the dog’s mind, not his body. It is a training method based on working with your dog as a partner, based on respect and ethical standards.
Most of all, it is a fun, relaxing and a beautiful experience to connect and work with your pet at a level of mutual respect and understanding. Try it, I promise you will love it!
(Ramachandran Subramanian is an IT professional who has been training dogs for the past 15 years. He currently lives in Chennai.)