Tips from a Professional Dog Trainer: Fine-Tuning the Basics.
I had a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. My vet neighbor contacted me and told me that his friend, a professional dog trainer, visited him and he wanted to see if I am interested in talking with that trainer. I politely replied that I am interested, in all capital letters to emphasize it, and promptly prepared before heading out.
My vet neighbor introduced me to "Jim" who works for a dog training facility in another state. My Vet Neighbor told him about me and how I was training both my dog and someone else's and he thought it would be a great thing to have me talk to an actual professional. Jim was willing to teach me some basics, so I told him first about my methods and the fact that I use a shock collar. He was surprised that I use one, not because it's a bad thing, but because he gives it as an option to his clients, but his clients deny it, often vehemently. He did use it when he was training police dogs before, and it was effective for the strict, fast-paced nature of the training. He agreed that an aversive strategy is highly effective in dog training where lives and livelihood will depend on them. It's also a great option to speed up training times.
He couldn't stay very long but was willing to help me with my basic training, because dog trainers are really scarce where we are, and he would be willing to let me in their company if I could get proper certification. There's always an agenda to it of course, but I'm better off knowing someone's intentions from the get-go. I told him it's a hobby for now, but he hinted that the pay could be good.
Intentions aside, I agreed and we talked about training. First, he wanted to know my process and what I know, so he can just fill in what I don't know. I told him about how I use positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement in tandem, and how I never use positive or negative punishment in my training, even if it's to solve unwanted behavior. Without the shock collar, I use a clicker to "mark" the behavior, and I use a method called "Shaping" for difficult behaviors, or advanced commands like the "Get" training that Maui's still getting used to.
He was somewhat impressed. He told me that many wannabe trainers tend to fall into certain pitfalls because they misunderstand most training methods He said my training method is good as I stick to the science-based method and just needs some fine-tuning, so he taught me a few principles I should never forget.
1. You only have a second to reward or punish.
The core principle. The most popular method of teaching dogs tricks is to reward them for good actions, but on the opposite end, many owners treat their dogs like kids by showing the dog what they did wrong, then punish. If your dog peed on the couch and you discover it a minute after the fact, punishing the dog will be pointless, as they won't associate the punishment with peeing. It's much better to punish them in the act of peeing, or immediately after.
Another example is if your dog went out somewhere they shouldn't be. If you call your dog and they go to you, you should not punish them. Instead, you should reward them for coming to you when called, and only punish them when they do the act again.
It's also not a good idea to "assume" that a dog will do something, then punish/reward them. When a dog is about to go potty by doing some of their usual actions, don't punish them. It's better to just take them outside, let them do their business, then reward them right after.
2. Consistency is key
This was something I already know, but it never hurts to state again. Jim said that even the most unmotivated or hard-at-learning dogs will eventually pick things up if you're very consistent about the tone, pitch, and volume of your commands. So if a dog has problems learning what's being taught to them, as long as the trainer is consistent with everything, they will learn eventually.
This is the same with punishments, which is why dog trainers and pet owners need to be extra careful about what they punish their dogs with. If the dog climbs on the sofa and you allow it, don't punish them again if they go into the sofa, as it will only lead to confusion. What they might do is hop on the sofa when you're not looking because they knew they could sit on the sofa, but you're only scolding them when you're around. By being consistent, especially when they are young, the things a pet parent teaches them can go a long way.
Verbal punishments are alright because most dogs know almost by instinct what an angry human sounds like. A consistent "no!" is often more than enough, and it doesn't even need to be a loud one. Jim shared that dog ears are pretty sensitive, so I really don't need to project my voice. It's also apparently a bad practice to repeat the command with a louder, or firmer voice when the dog isn't doing the command. It's better to just reset. By reset, he meant changing positions, or even just playing with the dog a little.
3. Motivation is half the battle
This is where treats and other rewards are important. Whatever the training will be, if the dog isn't as motivated to get the reward or even the action, they won't learn as much, or won't learn at all. Since I use high-value treats that are different from their normal meals, all the three dogs I'm training would rather have the yummy treats over a lot of things. At some point, I wondered if I'm making them dependent on treats, but Jim reassured me that it won't be the case. I asked him about varying the rewards between play, praise, and treats. He said it's fine as long as I think about the dog's motivation. If adding play into the mix can make the dog feel more motivated, or make it more positive, then it's a good option. He recommends adding play into the mix when dealing with high-energy dogs.
Thankfully, I've been doing these things while I was crawling my way into dog training. It's still nice to hear it from somebody who actually has experience.
To further refine my positive reinforcement training, he taught me that there should be two kinds of proper marking commands. One is to affirm that they did the right thing, and the other is to tell them that they finished the entire command. For example, a "Yes!" and "Good!". When teaching them advanced behaviors, I can use the "Yes!" to tell them that they did a step correctly, then when they finished the whole command, state the "Good!" marker.
An example is when he is teaching a service dog to pick up dropped items. It's broken down into five steps. First, is the dog noticing the dropped object, then touching the object with its nose, then placing the object in its mouth, then finally, handing it to the owner. The dog is rewarded on each step with a "yes!" to mark it, then when they finally finish the entire process, is given a reward with "Good!" as a marker.
He asked me if I could show him my shock collar, just for comparison. I came back with it and told him about the features. He asked the price and apparently, the collar kit was far more affordable for what it could do. I argued it's probably because it's newer, of sorts. He asked if I could show him how I use it on Maui, so out I went again to get my mighty mongrel and showed him. I unleashed Maui out into the street and let him wander a bit before pressing the beep button. Maui instantly turned and bolted towards me, then I praised him. I then told him to sit and displayed that I pressed the shock button, then as soon as Maui sat, which was nearly a split second after, I released it, and praised Maui for sitting. I didn't have a treat with me so a scratch on the back of the ear will do. He likes it anyway. I then released Maui from his sit and allowed him to wander again. After about roughly 100 yards, I pressed the beep button and Maui came racing back.
So, according to Jim, my negative reinforcement training is on point. I'm doing the shock before the action, releasing it as they do the correct action, then marking and rewarding after. He liked that Maui could be recalled using the beep even at a really far distance.
Sadly he couldn't stay longer, but he handed me his card. In case I was interested in learning enough for certification, I could contact him and arrange things. Of course, there are fees involved, but I don't care right now. Just having that door open for me is a great deal already, and I owe my neighbor vet bigtime.
This is something I really should think about. It will be quite time-consuming and could define what I'll be doing as a career, so I will not take this one lightly.