Updated: Dec 10, 2022
I spend a lot of time explaining why communication is paramount to effective behavioral modification. The reason I spend the time expanding on communication: dog on dog communication, a handler's body language as communication, the language between pet parent and dog and dog to pet parent, as well as the verbal and non-verbal components is, simply, without a common spoken language and understanding it is beyond difficult to help the animals we share our lives with. As mentioned in our Part I Blog (where we defined capturing, shaping, luring and marking), humans speak human and dogs speak dog...so how do we bridge the gap?
"Communicate unto the other person that which you would want him to communicate unto you if your positions were reversed. "
- Aaron Goldman
There is an emotional component to the way in which we teach our dogs. Teaching is definitely under the realm of communication. If you could remove your human bias for just a moment and realize our dogs are animals with genetic drives to shred, tear, jump, run, bite, pull, tug, roam, forage, sniff, explore, problem solve, meet THEIR needs and dog then we would realize how hard it is for them to conform to all our immediate demanded socially acceptable HUMAN expectations. And if we can consider that we expect much from our dogs we have to also consider the way in which we are communicating our expectations for behavior to them matters. Do you communicate with respect? Do you teach with your dogs mental health in mind? Do you expect your dogs to learn on your timeline? Do you talk to your dog in a way that is motivating for him? Do you treat your dog like you would want to be treated if you were learning a new language in a foreign world you were made to live in that is a bit opposite from the drives that make you, you?
I am basically describing compassionate, respectful, empathetic, mindful, patient and a more sensitive approach to the way in which we treat our dog when we are doing behavioral work together. I find that the psychological and behavioral principles of positive reinforcement embodies the type of communication that promotes the most mental good and the most effective. Science agrees, positive reinforcement is not only more effective from the surface but it is "more effective in the long run, learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is more likely to be remembered, even beyond the end of the reinforcement schedule" (Diedrich, 2010). What exactly is positive reinforcement? It is essentially a behavioral principle that states, when we add a reinforcing stimulus (a treat) following a behavior (a sit) then that behavior will likely occur again in the future, essentially strengthening a certain behavior. This is exactly the type of effects we want on learning for our dogs; more positively reinforced behaviors. If you aren't completely convinced that ethically you should communicate with your dogs using positive training methods consider that your dogs have the mentality of a toddler. Your dog is like a 2-3 year old child. Think about that for a moment and let that sink in. Once you understand the mental level your dog is at you should understand your intentions and way you deliver your lessons has a direct impact on their well being; mentally and physically.
"The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount." -B.F. Skinner
Research has shown that teachers who spend more time promoting responsible behavior than responding to irresponsible behavior are more effective. We use this same philosophy with dogs. Spend your time rewarding and promoting all those good choices your dogs offer through out the day. We call it capturing. We are going to revisit this technique even though we covered it previously so we can note the connection between capturing and extinction. Capturing your dogs offered choices is incredibly effective. You will also notice how much your dog actually gets right when you embody this teaching style. You can capture eye contact, coming to you or sits. The idea is that when you start to pay attention to the choices your dog is making that are desired, you will look for them more, your dog will get rewarded more, the good behaviors will increase and the less desired ones will diminish. This is scientifically proven in that "behavior-specific praise that is is contingent on the student's behavior alone is linked to positive outcomes for students, including enhanced academic engagement and reduced incidence of disruptive behavior (Positive Psychology, Courtney Ackerman, MSc, 2020). Your dogs are the students here and we are the ones that need to rely on their offered behaviors so they too can have a direct role in creating these positive outcomes. Truly win-win!
Capturing can naturally lead to extinction. So if we are preparing our dogs food and the dog is jumping and barking then we should be mindful of what the dog is communicating. Excitement for the food. If our next choice is to then give the dog their bowl of food we have just taught them to bark and jump for their food. Not exactly what most people really want to teach their dog. So if instead we wait for a desired behavior and capture it (sitting for example) then with our consistency and repetition we can then capture the sit and extinguish the barking and jumping. We have successfully reinforced a calm mind state with a healthy behavioral choice and simultaneously removed the undesired behaviors. Extinction is simply a behavioral principle that has much to do with our own human actions. What are we accidentally reinforcing? Jumping is probably the most common behavior I see people inadvertently teaching. You come home from a long days work excited to see your fur-kids and boom love all over them when they are up on your body. Easy to do, but definitely not what we should be communicating. Because how unfair of us to teach them to jump all over us and be overly excited when people come through the door only for Grandma to visit and the dog(s) hurt her body or knock her down and us yell and punish our dogs (for what we taught them). Extinction says, when you stop reinforcing a behavior, the behavior fades away. Entering your home and having low energy, communicating with your body that you are moving away from your dogs and ignoring them until all four paws are on the ground is a great way to teach them using positive methods and even using capturing when that all important all four paws on the ground moment happens! Above all when I teach clients about capturing and extinction I want people to realize the way in which they view their dogs behavior matters, it matters in multi-faceted ways. We start to notice teachable moments we otherwise would have missed. We start to be more present in the moments with our dogs. We reflect on how our own behavior impacts theirs and we are open to realizing how much of our every day moments with our dogs are all about the reciprocal communicative relationship.
"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." -Dr. Wayne Dyer
The last behavioral jargon word we will discuss is desensitization. I am sure you have heard about desensitizing a dog to touch, car rides or triggers. Most of the time when we use this process it is with a dog or person that already has a strong emotional reaction to something present in their environment. So we are starting with a dog that has a fear-anxiety ridden perception of a trigger. Psychologically desensitization is a diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it." It is a technique we use very frequently. Some of you may be using it during socialization with puppies or older dogs and not realizing it. For us to do the least amount of harm I do like to coach people to find the smallest dose of systematic desensitization and gradually progress in small increments of more and more exposure. For example, with dogs that are scared of car rides; don't start with car rides. Start with rewarding your dog for looking at the car and then for going near the car at all. And from there we progress to having the dog around and rewarding for placing or sitting when the car doors are opened. And again build from that foundation. We should never rush our dogs or create expected results when we are desensitizing them. Patience and being methodical in this approach is crucial for success. Our dogs behavior always has function and is communicative so we can see that when we respectfully use this method we are changing an animal's perception of a stimulus from negative to less negative, to neutral, to a little positive to positive. Imagine that our dogs have trust accounts and it is our job to deposit in their account to grow their depth of trust with as many situations, triggers, contexts, people, other dogs and environments as possible.
Meet the Behaviorist, Jennifer Caves, M.Psy, CGC:
Welcome dog lovers and all dogs! I am the founder and Canine-Human Educator for REAL Animal Behavioral Solutions. We consider our work to be rooted in science and driven by ethics. Our passion meets purpose mission is unique in that we empower and educate people with a lifelong skill set to help any dog they share their life with currently or in the future. Dogs are incredibly resilient and intelligent and when the humans in their life know the how, why and successful implementation of behavioral principles- our dogs become happy, healthy and healed.
I have my Masters in Psychology and Canine Good Citizen Certification through the AKC. I have literally been rescuing animals since I was 16 years old with 15 years of behavioral experience. I consider it a privilege to work with you and your dog!
Real Animal Behavioral Solutions provides a holistic whole body-whole brain scientific approach to training using positive reinforcement and relationship building principles. Our one of a kind dog-psychology encompasses the mind and body connections that are inherently at work in dog behavior.