Dog training is a game of consequences. The objective of the game is to get a dog to reliably obey a variety of trained commands. If you play the game right, you can win. If you play the game wrong you will lose.
The game is actually quite straightforward. When a dog does anything at all, there are three possible consequences. You play the game by altering the consequences. The objective of the game is to change the dog’s behaviour. Here is a description of the three possible consequences
- Things get better for the dog
- Things stay the same for the dog
- Things get worse for the dog
These three consequences are what control a dog’s future behaviour. Any time a dog does anything, one of these three consequences applies.
Each consequence has the power to alter the behaviour that immediately precedes it in one of two ways. The behaviour that precedes the consequence can be
The first consequence in our lists ‘Things get better for the dog’ increases the behaviour that preceded it, the second two consequences diminish behaviours that precede them. Here are some examples.
Consequence 1: Things get better for the dog
Your dog sits and gazes lovingly at you as you eat your breakfast. You give him a piece of toast. Things just got better for the dog. He will be much more likely to sit and gaze lovingly at you whilst you eat tomorrow.
Consequence 2: Things stay the same for the dog
Suppose you buy a dog-proof rubbish bin. Your dog spends ten minutes trying to get inside it and fails. Things have stayed the same for the dog. He is less likely to repeat the behaviour try and get in the bin again. After a few repeated attempts to get into the bin, the dog will give up for good.
Consequence 3: Things get worse for the dog
The dog puts his feet on the kitchen table whilst his owner is standing next to him. The owner smacks the dog. The is less likely to put his feet on the table again when she is standing next to him (what he does when she leaves the room is another matter)
How did this ‘game’ evolve?
The wild animal needs to make sense of its environment. It needs to be able to behave in a way which is beneficial. Behaviours which do not have beneficial consequences are a waste of precious energy. So animals have evolved not to indulge in activities which do not have a beneficial consequence. They have also evolved to react rapidly and without hesitation to environmental triggers that predict unpleasant or pleasant consequences. This offers the wild dog the best chance of catching himself a meal, or of avoiding danger. The more often a consequence is repeated, the more automatic the response from the animal. We can use this simple fact to modify an animal’s behaviour and to create an ‘automatic’ or ‘trained’ response.
The trained response always involves the ‘game’
A trained response is automatic. It is unthinking and occurs without any hesitation or calculation on the part of the dog. To achieve this blissful state of automatic obedience, we have to embed a trained response into the dog. We do this through this game of consequences that we call dog training. We take charge of the consequences.
Some consequences are easier to control than others. Consequence 2 ‘things stay the same for the dog’ can be quite difficult to control because dogs do not exist in a vacuum. If we do not provide a consequence immediately, the dog can and will, generate his own consequence. This means that it is sometimes very difficult to ensure that ‘things stay the same for the dog.
When dog training is going well consequence 1 ‘things get better’ usually comes in the form of a reward provided by the trainer. When dog training is going badly consequence 1 is often provided by the dog ‘helping himself’ to an enjoyable activity. Consequence 3 ‘things get worse’ usually comes in the form of punishment of some kind provided by the trainer.
The law of consequences
Consequences control a dog’s future behaviour. If you control the consequences, you can control the dog. But there is an added difficulty. Generally speaking, the further away from you the dog is, the harder it is to control the consequences of his behaviour, and this is because of the first important ‘law’ of consequences in dog training.
Consequences must be timely
The law of consequences is very specific. The consequence must follow the behaviour immediately if it is to have any influence over the dog’s future behaviour. In nature cause and effect is swift. There is no delay. Dogs have evolved to take advantage of this fact.
Thus a punishment to be effective must be applied at the exact moment that the dog commits an error, and the same applies to a reward.
Consequences must be correctly chosen
Consequences that humans deliberately provide and/or control during training fall into three categories to match the three outcomes described above. We can label these categories as
A good consequence makes things better for the dog, a bad one makes it worse, and if the dog is indifferent to a consequence or if there is no consequence at all, then things remain the same for the dog.
However, and this is crucial, it is the dog’s perception of the consequence that matters, not ours. And if you label a consequence wrongly, your training will fail. It is no use offering a ‘pat on the head’ as a consequence for example if your dog is indifferent to being patted on the head. Nor is it any use squirting a dog with water as a bad consequence if your dog quite likes it.
Nor is it any good allowing your dog to chase his tail as a ‘no consequence’ for disobeying your recall if he loves chasing his tail. You have to work out which label your dog would apply to a consequence, not the one you think should apply. Once your labels are correct, you can make the right choices
Trust in the science
The rules and laws which govern animal behaviour have been thoroughly demonstrated and tested over many years by scientists in and out of the laboratory. They have stood the test of time and you can trust them.
Because these laws are often couched in complex behavioural language, illustrated with serious-looking diagrams and steeped in jargon, people are put off investigating further.
The fact is, dog training is just a game, based on common sense and logic, that anyone can play.
If you follow these rules faithfully:
- Choose the right consequence
- Time your consequence accurately
You will be able to control and enjoy your dog, each and every day you spend together.