It’s a cold Saturday in upstate New York, the kind of day where everything is covered in ice, deicing salts, or both. Four future training superstars gather at the Clicking with Canines facility in Endicott, NY to attend a KPA workshop weekend presented by my business partner Steve Benjamin.
KPA is a lot of work for both the dogs and the people, so we took a short break to allow the students to take their dogs out for potty breaks and get some fresh, if not bitter cold air and stretch their legs a bit. Many of the dogs live further south than Binghamton, and are no more pleased with the bitter winds and cold temperatures than I. Some of the dogs with shorter coats are, in fact, shivering and can only be outside for a few minutes at a time.
The KPA students attending are talented trainers with a great understanding of dog behavior. They understand one of the fundamental differences between positive training and traditional training: positive trainers blame a breakdown in the training process when a dog doesn’t respond appropriately to a cue, traditional trainers blame the dog. We are taught to tape ourselves training and review the tapes to evaluate the clearness and precision of our cues, to be quiet with our bodies and “let the clicker do the talking.” If the behaviors are proofed for all aspects of fluency, and the cues are clear, why on earth would our dogs ever NOT respond to the cue?
Some people attribute poor cue response to dominance, some to spite, some to stubbornness or willfulness. Some get angry and call their dog “stupid” when he doesn’t respond to a “known” cue.
I am guessing that 99% of the time none of these factors are the reason and that the actual reason probably boils down to one or both of the following causes: either you haven’t proofed the behavior well enough or something about offering the behavior makes the dog uncomfortable.
One student learned the hard way, a lesson well-taught from his beautiful but very short haired mix breed dog.
We approached the building together, eager to get some relief from the cold. Like many of the students, this particular individual has their dog on a “Nothing in Life is Free” protocol, which means the dog earns life rewards through the performance of cued and desirable behaviors. (Think of all the things you give your dog, and all the things that your dog can give you. You should expect something from the latter category in return for giving your dog something from the former category.)
As we neared the door, the student cued his dog, “sit.” I would bet that this dog had performed “sit” thousands of times, in dozens of different environments. The behavior was well proofed, so why wouldn’t this dog sit?
I asked for the dog’s leash. I think the student thought I had a miracle training technique up my sleeve with which I could solve this behavioral dilemma. Alas, I didn’t.
Once I had the leash in hand, I turned to the student and said, “you know how to sit, right? You know what the word means?”
“OK,” I said, “take your pants off and sit on the ice in your skivvies.” I think he thought I’d lost my mind. I was hoping to teach him to think about things from his dog’s perspective.
Needless to say, the student did not respond to my cue, even though he understood the cue and its connection to the behavior. Why didn’t he want to sit on the ice in his undies? Because ice is cold, and it is uncomfortable to sit on. So are deicing salts, I’d imagine.
It is always important to consider, if you are cueing a behavior that you have proofed well and your cue is clean and clear, environmental factors and stressors which may make it difficult, uncomfortable, or impossible for your dog to comply with the cue.
Example: Dogs don’t like to sit on ice.
Example: Long duration stays may be painful for dogs with arthritis, hip or joint abnormalities, or strained muscles, causing dogs to break the position before they are released.
Example: Reactive dogs are not disobeying a cue if you ask for a down stay in the presence of another dog; you are simply asking for an operant behavior in a situation where your dog is responding emotionally.
Example: A student was teaching her dog to leg weave, but was lined up incorrectly, effectively asking her dog to walk into a wall. Needless to say, the dog did not respond to the handler’s weave cue.
Whenever you are cueing behaviors, evaluate the situation and note carefully differences between your dog’s usual response. If you have practiced to the level of distractions in the environment and your dog shuts down, maybe something is wrong. Maybe your dog is not disobedient but is in fact in pain or experiencing a high level of stress. It truly is a sad sight to see a dog who is in a great deal of pain get punished for not responding to the cues – as though they would actually choose pain and disobedience if there were another, comfortable, enjoyable option.
Last year at ClickerExpo in Providence I had the wonderful opportunity to be a learning lab coach in Kathy Sdao’s cueing lab. Kathy uses the analogy of a green light. Our entire lives, we have been taught “green light means go,” but there are actually a number of reasons why we may not go through a green light…perhaps a small child crossed the street without looking. Perhaps a dog or cat ran into the road. Perhaps there was a car accident at the intersection and it is not safe to proceed. Even the smartest of humans can fail to respond to a well-ingrained cue if there is something “wrong” about doing so in a particular instance, so why would we expect our dogs to be any different?
If there are behaviors your dog usually performs with joy and suddenly you get no or lackluster response to the cue, consider if something in the environment may be discouraging your dog, and think too about your dog’s health – is there something painful or uncomfortable about responding to their cue?
Some dogs want to respond to a well taught cue so badly that they will do so despite physical discomfort. This can end up backfiring and poisoning your cue, the dog will associate the cue with discomfort and thus will not respond as reliably to your cue in the future because sometimes, responding to the cue hurts!
In any training, make sure that your cues are clear and concise, and that you are realistic about your dog’s response to the cue in relation to how well you have proofed it. If your normally enthusiastic jumper all of the sudden lays down or goes into her crate when you cue her favorite behavior, it may not be a training problem, but a physical problem.
Training should be fun for you and your dog, but will not be fun for your dog if it hurts her. Remember the KPA student, who was well-intentioned, tried hard to be the best student he could be, understood the cue very well, and still could not comply with my request for a cued behavior because it would have been both socially and physically uncomfortable for him; and keep this in mind if your dog’s normally enthusiastic cue responses start to break down.