Are There Really Quick Fixes in Dog Training?

One Easy Hack to Fix Your Dog’s Behaviour – Really???

Have you seen those ubiquitous facebook ads offering easy, instantaneous, and guaranteed fixes for your dog’s behaviour? Phrases that figure prominently in these ads include: ‘amazing results’, ‘works for all dogs’, ‘the lazy way to train’, ‘works right away’, ‘one simple hack’, ‘secret trick’, ‘100% effective’, and so on.  But as always, the aphorism Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) applies.  What you see is often NOT what you get! Let’s take one example:

A typical ad reads like this:

One simple trick to stop dog barking in 5 hours or less!  The ad promises to share a simple trick to get you started in a 3-minute video.  What happens when you click on the video?  You are taken to a more than 15-minute-long video that tells a story about a dog biting a mail man and then launches into a hard sell for a $97 masterclass in addressing dog biting (but amazingly (!) available right now for only $17!  But time is running out! You MUST act now to lock in the savings!). At no point in the video is any useful information given about how to address barking. If an organization cannot be honest about the content and duration of a simple video, how likely is it their advertising about the amazing efficacy of their product is honest?

Are there quick fixes in dog training?
The answer is mostly ‘no’, and a qualified ‘yes’ (which we will come to later).  Effective training is a process and takes time. Some dogs learn certain skills very quickly – other skills take more time. But once a skill is learned – there is more to be done.  We need to:
·       build value (make the behaviour one the dog sees value in performing)
·       generalize the behaviour (to different locations and contexts) and
·       proof the behaviour (made it distraction proof).
All this takes time!

Building value is like making a deposit in an account for that behaviour. We make deposits by marking the behaviour with a verbal marker or clicker and then immediately following that up with something the dog loves (food, play, praise, petting, life rewards etc.)  Both the quality of the reinforcer (high value vs lower value) and the frequency of reinforcement are important. If you want to build value quickly – reinforce often and with high value reinforcers.  Play and food are often more valuable than praise and petting. Some types of play are more valuable than others. Some treats are more valuable than others.  Effective training includes understanding your dog’s reinforcement hierarchy and using it to advantage.  Once the dog has learned the behaviour solidly, we need to make sure he understands the cue and the behaviour no matter where he is and no matter what is going on around him (generalizing and proofing).

Dogs repeat behaviours that get reinforced! Unfortunately, not all reinforcement comes from us and not all is under our control. If we stick with the example of barking – barking may be reinforced by a wide variety of things – stress relief, attention from owner, the thing barked at moves away etc.  By the time barking is noted as a problem behaviour, the dog already has a substantial history of reinforcement for barking that is going to make it resistant to being extinguished quickly and easily.

Most quick fixes rely on suppression of behaviour through use of aversive techniques. Aversive techniques are designed to introduce fear. Repeated application of aversives can lead to a state of learned helplessness where the behaviour is suppressed. Suppression of the behaviour does nothing to address the reason why the dog is barking and can leave the dog feeling stressed and conflicted – and even more concerning, fearful of the owner or handler applying the aversive technique. When an ad claims quick fixes, the training technique is often one that relies on inducing a state of learned helplessness so that the dog is afraid of doing the behaviour and will suppress the behaviour. One of the problems we see with this approach is that in some cases, the suppression only goes so far – a fearful dog that has been punished for growling can suppress the growl – but if pushed too far outside his comfort zone, will explode past growling into a lunge and bite.

Helpful quick fixes that are things that address the underlying cues (triggers) for the behaviour and managing the environment to minimize the cues. For the example of barking, this includes things like white noise to obscure auditory cues, window shades / blinds / frosting to minimize visual cues, moving the dog to a different area of the house when external cues trigger barking etc. Getting rid of the trigger can help manage the problem while you work on the emotions that trigger barking and train alternate, desirable behaviours in response to the triggers.
Many undesirable behaviours are the result of uncomfortable emotions – anxiety, fear, boredom.  Because these behaviours help to some extent to ‘solve’ the emotional problem for the dog, they are internally and naturally reinforced. Sorting through why dogs behave as they do (whether barking or some other undesirable behaviour) takes time. Good behavioural help starts with 1) understanding why the dog does what he does, 2) instituting a good management plan to address immediate concerns and 3) then crafting a training plan to address the specific need. This can be training an alternate acceptable behaviour (inside voice instead of loud barking) or desensitizing / counter conditioning work to help change the dog’s emotional response so that the behaviour is no longer needed. There is nothing quick about this!  But there is also nothing harmful to your dog – or to your relationship with your dog.

Quick fixes are so appealing – but in the vast majority of cases, they are not the wonderful quick fix they are promised to be. If your pup is doing something that drives you crazy, seek out a fear free / positive reinforcement qualified trainer to help you address the problem holistically.  Don’t get taken in by ads that promise the world in an instant but are likely to apply harmful and outdated techniques. Modern, ethical dog training uses positive reinforcement without using fear and aversive / correction-based modalities.

Did you know that the Cairn Terrier Club of Canada has a number of trainers across the country?

Jan Morgan (Oshawa ON) – Pawsitive Puppies
Jeannette Hargreaves (Saskatoon SK) –
Karen McClean (Okotoks AB) – Wags to Wishes K9 Training and Separation Anxiety Coaching, Zoom Training
Shelley Cherkowski (Richmond BC) – Cairnheart K9 Training