Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Art of Turning the Other Cheek

Few phrases cause a dog owner to lose faith in a trainer's abilities faster than "Ignore the behavior." Your dog is jumping incessantly or barking constantly and you're told that the best thing to do is nothing at all? How is that ever going to work? It goes against everything we stand for and has the added disadvantage (to the dog trainer at least) of coming off as the absolute weakest and most unhelpful "answer" that could ever be offered. Ever.

"How do I  change a flat tire?"
"Just ignore it."

"How do I reformat my computer?"
"Ignore it..."

This response makes absolutely no sense when referring to inanimate objects. However, that changes completely once you introduce even the smallest amount of brain power. For example:


"How do I get my crazy neighbor to stop asking to borrow my stuff?"
"Ignore him..."

See?? Rude.
Admittedly, for that last one you could end up coming off pretty rude but I guarantee that if you were consistent it would be the answer to your problem. If you ignored your neighbor completely, never giving in to lending out your possessions, he would eventually stop asking for them. (Unless there were more serious issues at play in which case a restraining order might be the way to go). Thankfully, when it comes to dogs you don't even have to worry about being considered rude. Rude is practically their native language!

Of course, the real issue at hand has little to do with politeness. It's about whether or not this really works in dog training the way that all of these wussy trainers (like myself) claim. You can be honest with me; some of you probably suspect that we run to the "ignore it" response when we have no idea what the real answer might be. It's ok.  I forgive you...but only if you continue reading.

Without getting overly technical I want to make it very clear that the basis behind ignoring an unwanted attention-demanding behavior is preventing that behavior from being reinforced. I covered this quite a bit in the Screaming Child in the Grocery Store post, where I described that even a reaction that we perceive as "bad" (such as raising your knee when your dog tries to jump on you) can actually encourage the behavior to be repeated. Physical contact of almost any form is often appreciated by most dogs, especially when the alternative is being completely ignored. Yes, this is still true even if you take on an angry tone/demeanor.

You can be sure you've won the
battle of wills when you see
this face.
That being said, I have found that it often helps even more to emphasize the fact that you are not going to give in to an inappropriate request for attention. Actively ignoring unwanted behavior can help speed up the training process and make you feel a little more like you're actually doing something. Instead of just standing in one spot ignoring your dog, you can spice things up a bit by walking right past him. No eye contact, no physical contact whatsoever. Just go about your business as if your dog does not exist. You may not be able to walk through him and it will probably be tough as he tries his best to get a response, but pretend there is no dog. He may touch you but don't touch back.Talk about one confused pooch! This can work faster because your dog will soon recognize (unless you give in) that you're going about everyday things and nothing he does is earning him the reward that he used to receive. Until, of course, you spot him calming down and keeping all four feet on the floor like a good boy. In which case, he can have a quick dose of praise and maybe even a tasty treat. Don't forget to "mark" the desired behavior immediately by saying "Yes!" or clicking (only if you are familiar with the concept of clicker training; if not, please learn about it before trying to implement it. I will have a clicker post soon). You may have to be a bit nonchalant with the marker at first to prevent him from getting too excited to contain himself again. This will get easier as he figures out what does and doesn't work. Be prepared for him to initially put extra effort into the old way of doing things until he learns that there is a new and better way.

Another common example of attention-seeking behavior is barking/whining in the crate. While there are some dogs who have true separation anxiety and/or need a little more tweaking to their training plan, the issue almost always comes down to accidental reward in this situation. If you've ever yelled at your dog while he was whining in his crate or entered his room to tell him to be quiet you have contributed to the problem and reinforced his behavior. Yes, the yelling was in anger but to your dog, it was an abrasive yet shiny ray of hope. Actively ignoring a dog who is whining in the crate means going about business as usual until it's time for him to come back out. Do not go out of your way to be silent when your dog has been put in the crate or else you'll be tip-toeing around every moment that he has to be there. Make the crate positive by feeding meals and treats there. It can also help to practice crating him in short sessions during the day and certainly helps if he has been given plenty of opportunities to potty, plenty of exercise, and a comfortable bed.

For anyone dwelling in an apartment, this can be a terrible experience as you worry whether or not your neighbors are going to complain about the noise. My best advice is to try to get on good terms with your neighbors, explain the situation, and dress your dog up in cute clothes when he's out and about. No one wants to evict a well-dressed dog. In all seriousness, even if it takes a while to fix the problem this way, it will be much faster than if you accidentally reward your pet for being noisy.

The typical response to this type of advice is "It doesn't work on my dog." If you feel this way please ake a moment to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is this really an attention-seeking behavior? (If it is jumping up on people or barking while in the crate then your answer is yes.)
  2. Have you eliminated all forms of possible reinforcement of the undesired behavior? (Think about this one very carefully; if your dog wants attention of any kind then even angry attention from you counts as reinforcement!)
  3. Have you considered that any reinforcement basically starts the entire process over? (If you were consistent for a week but slipped up twice the following week, then you have not implemented this training technique properly.)
  4. Are you actively ignoring behavior as described earlier?
Your alternative is usually to use aversive techniques; those that involve pain or other physical discomfort such as bark/shock collars, to achieve your goal. They are usually the answer from other types of trainers who honestly don't know what a true psychological, educated response to your question is. They know exactly how to solve your problem the "human" way (not to be confused with humane). Their answer is going to sound effective right from the start, like a hammer to a nail. When faced with this situation, please remember what was stated before; that adding any amount of intelligence changes the game completely. You're not dealing with hammers and nails or a flat tire. You have a living, breathing, feeling, thinking creature in your care who is fully capable of learning from someone who will take the time to clearly communicate. This is a fact that should be acknowledged and respected.

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