Dog Training Secrets #1: there are no magic bullets.
You want to make money? Market a product for dogs that claims to solve problems instantly. By the time you get caught out, you’ll have made your money and be sitting at a bar surrounded by palm trees somewhere much warmer and less muddy than you are now. Better still, design five products and sell them a couple of years apart from each other. Pay a world-class marketing team and your job is done. Sit back and watch the profits roll in. Warning: this is not a job for you if you are at all afflicted by a conscience or any sense of shame.
It seems that everyone on social media these days is after the magic bullet, the panacea, the cure-all, for their dogs’ behaviour.
The Quick Fix is everything.
You’d have thought we’d be wise to snake-oil salesmen by now, but it seems Barnum was right when he said there’s a sucker born every minute – if he said it at all. And we all know fools and their money are soon parted.
Sometimes, we’ve sat back and watched our dog’s problems develop over months if not years. We’ve let them grow and grow. Perhaps we tried to ignore them and that made things worse. Those problems fester and metastasize. Sometimes, that’s just because life got in the way. Jobs got busy. Kids took priority. Pandemics ran rampant. One day, we wake up and we find that the itty bitty problem we had months ago is now a colossal beast and our dog’s behaviour is seriously impacting everyone else’s well-being, including their own.
Most of my calls and contacts come from people who can’t live with problems any more. Maybe they thought the problem would work its way out eventually. Rex would stop jumping up on guests, surely, when arthritis set in? Rover would stop barking like mental at the neighbours playing football, surely, by the time deafness and blindness took over? Lacey would stop biting people if we took her to a café, surely, by the time all her teeth fall out?
The trouble is that this is not what happens. Dogs don’t grow out of problems. They grow into them. They get better at the behaviour. They can do it for longer. They specialise. They do it in ways that get results more quickly.
For whatever reason, the behaviour works. Like an ugly and unwanted weed, it flourishes. It sends down roots that make it hard to unseat. It sends out shoots. It blossoms. It sets seed and raises a family. By the time clients get in touch with trainers, what they often present us with is an enormous triffid of a behaviour that is swallowing up all their energy.
What the snake-oil salesmen promise is a scorched earth approach to those problematic behavioural weeds. Burn it. Zap it. Concrete on top of it.
The trouble is that, like DDT, some of these promises are dangerous. Some of them destroy everything else too. You know… the important stuff like trust and friendship, choice and agency. Others don’t work. The fields around me are lurid orange right now and smell like burning rubber. I wouldn’t mind, but whatever this vile stuff is designed to kill seems to be effective for about five weeks. That’s what a lot of these Quick Fixes you can buy from any number of companies do. They work for a while and then the problems come back with a vengeance. Not only that, you’re left with a nagging feeling that what you’re doing isn’t good or right, but if the company says lurid orange rubber-smelling herbicide is what works, they must know?
And sometimes, the behaviour is resistant to those promised cures to all problems. Sure, it might work for a short while, only to find new ways to spread, to mutate, to find a way to flourish.
Anything in the dog world that promises you instant results is a bit like all those other ‘instant’ products we fall for, so reliably and so credulously. Great abs in 8 minutes a day. Five kilos weight loss in a month. Quick house sales. Immediate happiness. A better job in two weeks. If the aim is improvement, someone somewhere is making a profit out of the gullible fools who want instant success. You buy in. It fails. You leave 0 stars on their feedback and the company bosses cry into their margaritas in Tobago.
The truth is that we want a magic bullet. We want jumping up to stop immediately. We want our dog to instantly stop barking at the post van. We want our dog to stop pulling on the lead right this very minute and never pull again.
The reality is that there are no magic bullets. Hard work, repetition, creating good habits, building foundations, they all take time.
After all, the problem didn’t usually happen overnight. It’s not going to disappear overnight either.
So what can we do, other than give in?
In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao talks about something she calls SMART x 50.
SMART simply means, see, mark and reward training. In other words, every time you see the behaviour you want instead, mark it (say ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ or use a clicker) and reward.
She tells us to reward our dog fifty times every day for doing something useful or cute. If you have heard Kathy speak, you’ll know right away that’s her speaking. I’d settle for rewarding them for anything they’re doing better. Remember: rewards can be anything the dog finds valuable at that moment in time. That could be food, toys, praise (if your dog finds it rewarding at that moment) petting (likewise) or even functional rewards like being able to move forward on a walk. You are not advised to use fifty sirloin steaks. But small cubes would be just marvellous.
I do a lot of my own dog training this way. I don’t even know what they’ll do well that day. I’m just ready to mark and reward it when I see it.
Mostly, my dogs have it nailed good behaviour in the home, car and the garden. They stop barking when I ask and bark hardly at all any more. They’re patient and calm. They don’t stress when I’m getting food out. If I say “tea time!” they trot into the kitchen and they hang about quietly and unobtrusively when I’m doing my bit. They travel perfectly. They sit waiting for me if I need to nip into a shop. They’re happy to be groomed and have nails trimmed and take all the tablets I throw at them. I still reward them for ignoring the various comings and goings of my neighbour and his joyfully barky pointer. They are the least amount of effort of any dog ever born and I get to be the laziest dog trainer that was ever born.
Walks are different. Heston likes chasing stuff and he also has previous where it comes to barking at joggers, hikers or cyclists. He’s still prone to pull from time to time towards powerful smells. Lidy seems to divide things into ‘Can I kill it?’ and ‘Can I eat it?’. I’m not massively sure it’s a division as such. There seems to be a lot of crossover. But when my little firestarter first arrived after three years in the shelter, she had a lot of previous. If it moved, it needed to be dealt with. Her pulling was shocking. She walked like a small velociraptor on a lead randomly pouncing on things in bushes.
For a year, I walked her by herself. Frankly, she was pretty manageable as long as nothing surprising happened like we saw an unpredictable crow or a random cat. Then, when my old girl died, Lidy and Heston got walked together.
That first walk in new territory with the two of them terrified me. I forgot how sensitive Lidy is to novel stimuli and environments and how long she takes to acclimitise. I joke about her behaviour but in all seriousness, there are moments where I know that it’s taking everything I’ve ever learned to give her some quality of life without jeopardising the lives of other animals or risking injury to any humans she comes across. She pulled constantly for 4km. Less velociraptor and more Tyrannosaurus Rex. If we’d have come across anybody or anything, I ran the risk of losing control of her completely.
Behaviour like this doesn’t have a magic pill to cure it. I could have thrown everything that’s ever been claimed as a magic pill at her arousal levels and it still wouldn’t have been enough.
So where do you start, when it’s all wrong?
It reminded me of that saying: ‘how do you eat an elephant?’
‘One mouthful at a time.’
How do you solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem?
One small step at a time.
Kathy Sdao’s SMART x 50 is how we’ve been doing it.
If she pulled less, ‘good!’ and treat.
If she gave me eye contact, ‘good!’ and treat.
If she did a u-turn when I asked, ‘good!’ and treat.
We did other stuff too. I don’t want to make it sound as simple as all that.
But most dogs are not as complicated as all that.
And simply through that ‘one mouthful at a time’ approach, I think I’ve managed to at least eat a good bit of that elephant.
There are other tips too. Setting your dog up for success where they can do little but succeed is one of those things. Eliminating as much of the unpredictable while you embed new behaviours is another. Cherry picking the very best of what the very best trainers have to offer is another. We have a bank of five core skills that we practise every day.
This weekend was tough. Saturday was miserable. There were hunters literally everywhere and by the time I found a sensible place to walk without getting shot at in mistake for a boar, we’d been in the car for almost thirty minutes. Between the floods and the hunters, we’re a bit stuck. We got out. We played a few games. I used up some of those 50 rewards simply by playing some games and helping everyone chill out (including me).
And then… a muscular guy clad entirely in black lycra came running up to us. Not jogging. Like a serious, hardened runner. In terms of PREDATOR level of threat, this is surpassed only by a team of muscular guys clad entirely in black lycra running at you. We got out the way, we played some more games, I watched Lidy. Every time she watched him without anything more worrisome than a stare, I marked it and fed her from my hand at my side. If she went back to watching him, I said ‘yes’ and gave her her treat. Watching was fine. Lunging and leaping and grabbing and flopping about like a great white shark on a fishing line are not fine. That would have been my failure to work at a safe distance. We had watching and deciding and marking and rewarding. All was well.
Needless to say, a lot of my rewards got used up on that jogger. And that was fine.
As if this weekend couldn’t have been more challenging, yesterday, we saw two deer leap across the road. To be fair, they participated in my set-up perfectly. They were just far enough away to keep her under threshold and just in view for a lovely, narrow time so I could reward copiously without having to deal with watching them for 5 whole minutes.
This time, we played ‘get it!’ and ‘catch!’. The first allows her to visually track a moving treat. This is kind of like playing a cheap fair shooting game compared to going after big game, if that’s what floats your boat. No, it’s not the same. But it’s better than no shooting at all. I’m pretty sure Lidy would be one of those individuals posing proudly with some giraffe she’d killed. Here I am asking her to have a go at a fairground shooting gallery. ‘Get it!’ is the only way at that moment that she’ll get to chase and catch anything.
The second, ‘catch!’ allows ‘grab-bite’ behaviours on a moving target. Again, not in the same league but at least it’s catering to the same bits of her reward system and answering those primitive needs.
So it’s not just about SMART x 50.
It’s about how and when and where you use those rewards. You can use them to encourage focus by getting the dog to come back to you for the food or toy. You can use them to meet primal needs of being a dog, namely chasing and grabbing stuff for Miss Maligator 2015. You can use them to disrupt visual locking and fixing on a target (which is what I did) or you can use them to disrupt olfactory locking and fixing on a target. The latter is what I do with Heston when he’s nose-down-tail-up in a scent. What do I want? To disrupt the lock and fix on the scent. Throwing him a treat to find in the grass can do that, and caters to his olfactory needs. Or disrupting and rewarding from my hand is a good way if his tracking is in danger of pulling me into a bush.
By rewarding the behaviours we want to see little by little, day by day, we get so see unwanted behaviours die out. We’re starving those weeds of anything nourishing. No, it doesn’t happen overnight. No, it’s not a magic bullet.
Well, not one that works in 24 hours.
Over 12 weeks, sure.
Now we’re 12 weeks into Lidy’s SMART x 50 outdoor training and I’ve bags more focus and less arousal. She listens more and recalls more. She pulls much less, sometimes going several hundred metres without a tight lead, and she almost never lunges. Because her arousal levels are lower, she’s less predatory. She’s less likely to pounce on birds in the bushes, or mice in the hedgerows. She’s stopped alerting on distant cars and vans. Is she ready for the next steps? Sure.
The question then arises about where we stop. It’s not my aim that Lidy becomes super docile and passive, that she copes with Venetian costume parades and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Chasing the impossible would be an exercise in frustration and futility. I just want to know we can go for walks and she will cope. Next up is livestock, because they’re much more of a challenge for us and our walks are severely limited because she seems pretty willing to show me you can eat a full cow in one sitting despite my telling her it’s one mouthful at a time.
Variety is not just the spice of life. Variety in behaviour gives us something we can capture and nurture. But I can’t do that if I find myself treatless and unprepared. The worst behaviours are those that never vary. But as Lidy demonstrates, even if you can pull at one constant pressure for 4km, there’s still hope. The thing is, it’s never one constant pressure, not really. Where we have variety, we have the potential to coax evolution. And if we can do that, we might find that our weeds turn out to be flowers after all. Capture that variety when it’s at its best, and you might find that Death By A Thousand Cuts is more effective at killing off problem behaviours than some Magic Bullet anyway.
You don’t have to have a specific goal in mind. My lovely, perfect Mr Heston is lovely and perfect. I’m just rewarding him for the lovely stuff he does. With Lidy, I dd have a specific goal in mind. I wanted her to learn to walk, not trot (and heaven forbid anything faster!) on lead. I wanted her to check in with me unprompted. So every time she walked a couple of paces on a slack lead, I said ‘good!’ and gave her a treat. Every time she checked in, I said ‘good!’ and we moved forward to sniff the bushes. Now, walking is what we do, and checking in if we want to go sniff is also what we do.
So tomorrow morning, pick up your treat bag and count out your treats for the day. Every time you catch your dog doing something you like, mark it and reward it. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Very soon, those great behaviours will be default behaviours because it’s ‘just’ what we do now.