#43 - Why Your Dog Training Isn't Working

[00:00:00] Emily: I think a lot of times people expect an animal to already know how to do a thing because, well, you know, they’re animals. This is what they do. And so, when their pet doesn’t do the thing, it’s easy to assume that the pet just doesn’t want to do it. But in reality, these are learned behaviors. They might be species typical behaviors, there might be a component to these behaviors that’s innate, but a lot of these behaviors still have to be learned and honed. Just because it might be rooted in an innate behavior doesn’t mean that the pet just automatically knows how to do that. We have to teach them and as with any kind of teaching, we have to meet the learner where they’re at.

[00:00:37] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:55] Emily:  …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:57] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week we heard from Dr. Kristina Spaulding and one of the topics we discussed was the stress factor in dogs. This week we’re going to dive further into a common reason why folks say training isn’t working, which is making sure to provide a challenge that is well matched to the animal’s skill set and talk about implementation with the animals in your life.

In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about what grade schools and dog training have in common, how to provide the right kind of challenge for your pet, and a dog who had to be taught how to eat off the floor. Let’s get to it.

I loved when Christina was talking about providing a challenge that is well matched to the animal skill level, because I feel like we talk about that concept in several ways with pretty much every one of my clients. And of course, she just wrote about it more eloquently than we did. But ultimately, I see this often being the reason when people say that they’ve tried something, and it didn’t work. Whether they’re working on something as serious as working through maladaptive behaviors or as benign as trying a new food puzzle.

[00:02:31] Emily:  Right. I think a lot of times people expect an animal to already know how to do a thing because, well, you know, they’re animals. This is what they do. And so, when their pet doesn’t do the thing, it’s easy to assume. That the pet just doesn’t want to do it. But in reality, these are learned behaviors. They might be species typical behaviors, there might be a component to these behaviors that’s innate, but a lot of these behaviors still have to be learned and honed and in, in the wild, their parents would’ve taught them how to do that. And in, you know, the domestication, they don’t get taught how to do that. So, just because it might be rooted in an innate behavior doesn’t mean that the pet just automatically knows how to do that. We have to teach them since they didn’t grow up in an environment where their parents could teach them. And as with any kind of teaching, we have to meet the learner where they’re at.

[00:03:21] Allie: That’s even more true for those behaviors that aren’t species typical, which is a lot of the behaviors we’re asking of our pets when they’re living in our human society. So, let’s get into how to meet the learner where they’re at by providing a challenge that is well-matched to their skill level. And let’s use the example of teaching a pet a species typical behavior using the steps that Christina talked about last week.

And I invite you to teach your pet a new species typical behavior, or a replacement for a behavior you’re not enamored with, using these steps so that you can observe what Christina was talking about.

The first step is to make an educated guess of where to start based on your pet’s history. So, let’s say you want to teach your pet how to scatter feed or play find it. Those phrases are interchangeable for me. They mean the same thing to me. If you have a pet who has never eaten something off the floor, you’re going to be in a much different position than if you have an animal who was a stray and is already adept at foraging.

So that educated guess includes: what behaviors have you already noticed your pet performing and are they an approximation of what you want to teach? In addition to what you already know about how your particular pet learns.

[00:04:39] Emily:  The second step is to observe how your pet is responding to the activity. We’re looking for signs of avoidance, or disengagement, or frustration, or any other type of distress. If we see any of those body language signals that tells us that we’re probably giving them a challenge that lies beyond their skill level, or conversely, it might be too easy.

For example, I have no interest in playing with those ABC mouse games because I already know my alphabet. I am a big girl. So, we need to play around with what happens when we make the behavior easier or harder. But let’s always assume that we need to make it easier first, and then we can adjust as needed.

So, in the scatter feeding example, if the dog only eats a few pieces of food off the grass, and then walks away, or if we start seeing them looking skeevy in any way, like they’re avoiding it, they’re nervous, or they look distressed, or a little bit creeped out, or whatever.

Then we need to start at an easier step, so instead of scatter feeding their entire meal across the entire yard, let’s start by just dropping a handful of food in one spot in the yard. I’ll usually hold it out at like shoulder level and just drop it, and that’s a good enough scatter, like the height of my shoulder to the grass is a good enough scatter for newbie dogs who are just learning how to scatter feed.

[00:05:57] Allie: Once you found that sweet spot, not too hard, not too easy, we’re looking for Goldilocks here. Then the next step is to practice until it becomes easy. I think this is often where people will rush trying to get to the next step before they’ve practiced the current one enough.

If we drop a handful of food in one spot in a yard and that works, we wouldn’t then immediately abandon what’s working, and scatter food throughout the yard, though that seems to be human nature in all things of, we abandon things that work to try something new. I, that’s true in my life at least. Slow in study definitely wins this race. And while there are kind of general criteria that are thrown around in the dog training community of when to move on, like four outta five successful trials or 80% successful, I like what Christina said of having the criteria just be that it feels easy and giving folks more agency. With that, keep in mind that once it becomes easy, that we’ll still need more approximations towards that end goal behavior. For that scatter feeding example, that would look like expanding the amount of food and the search area by just a few inches instead of several feet.

[00:07:14] Emily:  Yeah, so I think that is a really good segue for my example, my proof story because, my guy that I’m gonna talk about was also a food related behavior, but for him it was about food puzzles. So, the sanctuary that Allie and I worked at together had a lot of dogs with a lot of difficulties, special needs. And Lazarus was one of the boys in my area who was a special need dude. He’d been hit by a car, so he had a traumatic brain injury, and he was, was perfectly capable, but he had some weird quirks as a result.

And so, the caregivers told me, “Well, Lazarus doesn’t use food puzzles, but I mean, you know, that’s just because of his TBI. Like he, he just, he’s not a dog who can do food puzzles.”

And I, I kind of had to hold my beer moment. Because I was like, “Okay, do we know that this is true?” Let’s explore this. So, fortunately Lazarus was one of my office dogs. Every day of the week the behavior team, we would have an office dog that would hang out with us in our office all day.

So, I brought Lazarus into the office after the caregivers told me that he can’t do food puzzles because he’d been hit by a car. And I just observed what he was doing. And what I noticed is that he would not eat food outside of the bowl.

It was his rule in his head. Food, it comes from the bowl and nowhere else. It’s only in the bowl. So, I was like, “Okay, what if we had a bowl shaped object? Would you eat out of a bowl shaped object?” So, I got a cardboard box that was about the same width and height as a food bowl, and I gave it to him with some food in it.

And he was like, “Yeah, cardboard bowls are bowls.” And so, he ate out of that just fine. And then, when he was totally good with eating, you know, I was throwing just like a small handful of food in each time so that I’d have several repetitions to work through, and so when he was no hesitation eating out of the cardboard box, I cut down the, the edges of the box so that we were a little bit shallower.

When he ate out of that just fine, I cut them down even more, so it was a little bit shallower. He was fine with that. I just put it on a flat piece of cardboard, like I just cut out the bottom of the cardboard box, put it on the ground, put the food on it. He was like, “Yeah, I can eat. It’s the bowl. It’s the bottom of the bowl. It, it still works. It still counts.”

And then started letting the food kind of drop off the sides of the, the bottom of the box, the piece of cardboard. And he could eat that, so when that was easy, as the food started showing up in other places on the floor, like, Oh, it’s on a blanket. Oh, it’s on a snuffle mat. Oh, it’s on these other objects. And so, we started to learn that other objects could have food on them that weren’t just bowls. And then from there I was able to get him eating out of a slow food bowl, and then out of, I can’t remember the name of the bowl, it’s the round one with the four little triangular like lids.

The spinny one with the little lids that they had to flip up. And I started that with the lids up, I’m not gonna make him figure out how to flip the lids. And then, Letting the lids kind of fall almost close, but not completely. He got that, and then we went to just flipping lids, so I don’t remember how many sessions that took, because it didn’t all happen in one office day.

It was maybe like two or three office days, but it really didn’t take that long, that many sessions for us to get from this dog will not eat food out of anything other than a food bowl. To this dog is eating out of food puzzle, and then we could expand his food puzzle repertoire from there.

So, there’s this story that he couldn’t do food puzzles because he had brain damage, and that wasn’t actually true. We just had to make the approximations a lot smaller than we might for a neurotypical dog, right? We had to start really, really simple and just gradually make it a little bit harder each time and wouldn’t move on until it was easy.

But he became quite proficient at food puzzles, and it became a part of his daily routine that he really enjoyed. So, he’s a really good example of a dog who people thought couldn’t do food puzzles or wouldn’t, weren’t interested. Through that process of identifying where he was at and looking for signs of disengagement or distress, and then gradually, moving on to the next little, tiny approximation as the current one was easy for him. We got him to do foraging toys like any other dog would. Any neurotypical doggie, he acted just like a neurotypical doggie when it came to foraging behaviors.

[00:11:40] Allie: I love that you pointed out that there was a story that was, like a self-fulfilling prophecy of, “Well, he can’t do it, so we’re not going to try.” And, and just how much human mindset can get in the way of our training goals, sometimes when we have stories that may not be entirely true, that we’re telling about our, our pet.

[00:12:03] Emily:  Yeah, those self-limiting beliefs are a type of auto epistemic logical fallacy that often get in our way because we think because I can’t see a solution, or I don’t know, a solution, a solution doesn’t exist, and this story that I’ve told myself is true. And that’s not meant to shame anybody. Right? That’s a very human trait it. It has a name. It exists as a logical fallacy because it’s really common, but to me, this is why I like teaching critical thinking skills because when we know that about ourselves, we’re better capable of digging ourselves out of that kind of pit that we might have gotten ourselves stuck in.

[00:12:37] Allie: We’ve been talking about species typical behavior, so I wanna talk about a dog with a maladaptive behavior and what this looks like in that situation, because that’s, usually what our clients are working with. So, in this example, this dog’s name is Raina, she is a shepherd, and Rena had big feelings about the neighbor dog Briggs, who was this little old man neighbor dog who did not deserve the hatred that Raina had for him. We don’t know why she hated him so, but she really, really did. And this resulted in a lot of reactivity in the backyard to the point where Raina would go into the backyard, immediately start barking as soon as she got out there. And if Briggs was outside, which he often was, she would be yelling at him.

Raina’s mom was a referral from a veterinary behaviorist, and when she first saw me, she had said, “Okay, I’m trying to do what the, what I was recommended, but it’s not working because Raina’s already barking. When we’re outside, I, I don’t know how to apply what I’m learning to this.”

And this was, again, I, I said earlier that when we hear ” I’ve tried this, and it isn’t working.” One of the really big, or one of the really common reasons we hear that is because we are not providing a challenge that is well matched to the animals’ skill level.

So, Raina said, ” I can’t work outside at all. There may be a nemesis outside and you can’t work near a nemesis.” And so, for Raina, we said, “Okay, we can’t start outside. That’s not an option for us.” And they had made progress in other areas of, of Raina’s life, so we really needed to work with Briggs specifically. It wasn’t going to work as well to go to a parking lot, or a big park, or something like that. And so, we started working at the window. There was one window where she could see Briggs, we took the window film off of that used curtains instead, and we started working at the window when Briggs was outside, until Raina said, “I can now see Briggs through the window and that’s okay.”

Once that became easy for us, then we said, “Okay, we’re not even gonna go outside per se, we’re gonna open the door. We’re just gonna open the door, and maybe he’s there, maybe he’s not, and we’re gonna work right here inside the house door slightly open until we were able to actually get outside and have her be able to learn outside.”

I think one of the things that gets people into trouble, that might be too strong of a of a term but gets people into trouble when working with maladaptive behaviors is trying to go right into the thick of it. Of, ” My dog is reactive in this situation, so I need to work on this situation.”

And it’s like, “Hold on. Nope. That is a collegiate level behavior. Your dog is in kindergarten. Let’s start with kindergarten.” So, for Raina that looked like this one window inside where she could see Briggs, and we started there. And now, she is to the point where we’ve actually graduated, Raina to as needed sessions. But she is able to move away from Briggs on her own without prompting, she’s able to go outside, be in the yard, all of that good sort of.

[00:16:04] Emily:  I love that. And I think one of the things that you didn’t mention, but I know about you because we’re professional wives, is that you were able to determine where she needed to start by watching for those body language signals that we talked about of avoidance or distress or whatever. And I wanna point that out because, like for people listening at home, the reason it’s important to hire a professional is because in many cases a professional is going to be able to identify those subtle cues that maybe you might have missed because you don’t do this for a living. And that’s how Allie was able to find what kindergarten actually looked like for Raina which doesn’t look the same for every dog, or every learner of any species, right? So, I know that you are quite adept at that, and I have to give you props for that because that’s why that was so successful.

[00:16:55] Allie: I appreciate the props. I’ll accept them. but you’re absolutely right. Raina’s mom sent me video of Raina in various situations, and I saw the stress before the door even opened, and so I knew that we couldn’t even work with the door opened. It was by the time she got out onto the patio, it was over.

All right, so to recap, today we talked about providing a challenge that is well matched to the animal’s skill level, and I invite you to teach your pet a species typical behavior to practice this.

Those steps include, well decide on the behavior first. I suppose that actually needs to be the first step, but after that, make an educated guess about where to start teaching that behavior based on your pet’s history. Then try the thing and assess if that’s an appropriate level based on your pet’s body language. Once you find the right level, practice until it becomes easy, before moving on to the next approximation.

Next week we will be talking about animal massage with Katie Sulzmann. Y’all. I’ve talked about o’s massage therapy before and how helpful it’s been for increasing and maintaining his mobility as he ages. Katie is his massage therapist, both Oso and I love her so much, and I’m stoked that you get to learn from her as well and hear about the bearded dragon client she has.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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