We’ve Been Training Backwards
Hand signals and voice commands don’t get dogs to behave
I went through a comprehensive dog trainer’s program. I’ve read (and continue to read) tons of books. I routinely listen to animal behavior podcasts and watch webinars. I attend animal behavior conferences and training seminars. And yet, as I was driving yesterday, listening to another podcast, I had an “aha moment” about something I’d been told at least a dozen times. I guess that’s what it takes sometimes.
I’m writing this for pet owners instead of dog trainers - and I hope I’ve done so in a way that makes sense.
There are basically three parts to any behavior. We label them as A-B-C, but I don’t want to get too technical about the terms here. Let’s look at each one…
A (Antecedent). This is the thing that happens right before a behavior. You can think of it as the “trigger.” Some examples include the word “sit” to get our puppy to sit. Or a hand signal to lie down. Or the thirst that gets us to stand up from our desk and go get a drink. Or a doorbell ringing that causes us to head to the door.
B (Behavior). This one is pretty obvious. It’s, well, it’s the behavior. It’s the sitting, lying down, going to get a drink, or answering the door.
C (Consequence). This is what happens after the behavior. After we go get a drink, our thirst ends - that’s the consequence. Getting a treat after sitting is a consequence for your dog.
We usually think the Antecedent (the prompt, voice command, thirst, ringing door bell) is what causes a behavior to happen. And that makes a lot of sense. We ask the dog to sit, he sits - therefore, the cue/prompt/command to sit “caused” the behavior, right? Wrong. Keep reading.
Let’s use a human example. (I admit, it’s not a perfect example…)
The doorbell rings. We go to the door. No one is there. This happens repeatedly. So, we’d probably try to fix the doorbell or run to the door to catch the prankster we think might be ringing and running away. But, let’s pretend for a minute that we just can’t fix the doorbell. It just rings sometimes when no one is there. So, what will you do when you hear the doorbell in the future? Will you keep going to the door? No? Why not? I mean, the prompt hasn’t changed - so you should keep going to the door shouldn’t you?
No, you’d stop responding to the doorbell prompt because there’s no payoff (no one is there to greet and no Amazon delivery to collect).
Hey, wait a minute. THAT is the reason we always went to the door, isn’t it? It’s not because the doorbell rang. It’s because someone was out there. Sure, the doorbell told us WHEN to do the behavior and that the opportunity for a “reward” of greeting someone was available. But the doorbell without a reward in the end teaches us to ignore the doorbell prompt.
I was watching/training a puppy for a week recently. On one of her first trips outside ever, she saw our mailbox on the post near the street. I’m pretty sure it was the first mailbox she’d ever seen. She barked at it and watched it. Then she paused. And she barked again and waited. But the mailbox didn’t respond. So, she moved on and didn’t bother barking at any other mailboxes on our walk.
Let’s break that down:
A - The antecedent (prompt) here was the appearance of a mailbox.
B - Barking was the behavior.
C - There was no consequence. The mailbox didn’t bark back. It didn’t give her a treat, or play with her, or pet her. It just stood there. Pretty darn boring.
So, the behavior stopped. No more barking at mailboxes even though more appeared a few feet down the sidewalk.
See, behaviors don’t happen because they are prompted.
Behavior happens because of the consequence.
Anyone can drop to their knees and clap their hands and make silly sounds to get a puppy to come to them once or twice. But the secret to a solid recall is building a strong history of reinforcement that’s considered valuable by the dog. If coming leads to nothing, or nothing much, or something bad, you should expect the coming to reduce in frequency (or quality). If the only time you call your dog is to pat them on the head (something many dogs tolerate but don’t actually like) or to put them in their crate so you can leave for work, you should expect their recall to fall apart. If, on the other hand, you build a strong history of giving amazing treats (even better than they get for sitting or shaking hands), a game of tug or fetch, or a wrestling match that they love, you should expect them to come more reliably when you call.
It’s really (almost*) that simple. Providing high-value consequences will cause behavior to happen again in the future. Failure to provide a desirable consequence won’t teach an animal to behave in the way we want no matter what word, sound, or hand signal we use.
* I say, “almost” here because there are certainly other factors. Practicing with minimal distractions and slowly increasing the distractions, distance, and duration for behaviors is also important. And yes, there are other things like having good mechanics. But let’s stick to the subject. Great reinforcement is the key.