We strive to make training accessible to everyone, to give our clients easy-to-implement training protocols, and to solve behavioral problems with the least invasive, most humane and effective methods possible.
There are lots of other labels that can be applied to the kind of training we believe in, among them: reward-based training, progressive reinforcement training, clicker training, and science-based training. It is perhaps most frequently referred to as Positive Reinforcement training. This label can be a little problematic for two reason. First, positive reinforcement is only one of many tools we have in our toolbox, and secondly, it is easy to misinterpret the “positive” in this name as having something to do with smiley face emojis. The “positive” in this context just refers to addition. It has nothing to do with being friendly and nice — two qualities that are not-essential to being a “good” dog trainer. However, we do happen to be both friendly and nice!
While it is possible to effectively punish and eliminate a behavior like barking or growling with accurate timing using a shock collar or other forms of positive punishment, there are always side effects when using these methods. Too often, punishment-based training methods result in generalized stress in dogs, which can then lead to more aggressive behavior in the future. Also, if your dog is barking, we need to address the why (the motivation) instead of just trying to stop the behavior itself at the surface. Otherwise, the results will be short term and unsustainable.
Additionally, these methods also teach a dog to not give the kind of warning signs that let us know that they’re uncomfortable. A dog with increased stress who has been punished for growling could bite without warning, making them less predictable and dangerous.
They’re constantly learning how to live in our world thanks to reinforcers but also thanks to stress and punishment provided purely by their environment. Most dogs can easily deal with some stress, but some dogs have a very low threshold and the stress can cause them to either shut down or turn aggressive. During your dog’s training with you, a smartly implemented positive-reinforcement-based training approach will ultimately encourage your dog to listen to you in general, and to spend his time with you trying to figure out what to do rather than what not to do.
There are currently no requirements for dog trainers in the US to hold any credentials to call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist. Each member of our team has had a different educational background; we are all happy to discuss how we have gained expertise, and how we continue to work towards broadening our understanding of the art and science of dog training.
For more on these (and other) certifications, see this helpful guide.
The first step to clicker training is to pair the noise with a treat or some other “primary reinforcer,” until the dog knows that that sound is always immediately followed by something good. In technical terms, the pairing makes it a “secondary reinforcer.” In the human world, cash is a secondary reinforcer: The paper itself doesn’t have any intrinsic pleasure-causing abilities, but we are conditioned to know it represents something good. Just like it’d be awkward if you boss paid you in actual groceries and gasoline, it can be awkward to smoothly deliver a reward with precise timing. The clicker buys you a bit of time. Like cash, the clicker is kind of a contract, saying you’ve given me something I want, now here is something you want.
The clicker is the preferred “marker” tool for many trainers because it is a noise that is sharp and unusual and easily distinguishable from most other things your dog hears. Studies suggest that it produces an unusually fast rate of learning. But any number of things can also be used as markers: a word such as “Yes” or “Click,” a hand motion, a whistle or a shining light can all be affective markers. Many people use a combination of tools: The clicker when its handy, and a marker word when it’s not.
Once a behavior is on cue and performed with fluency, rewards can be given intermittently. Fluency is always the goal, and is what shows that a dog truly understands something. It’s kind of like, say, reading. In the beginning, you needed a lot of reinforcement to let you know you were doing it right. But, once you really knew how to do it, things changed.
Ideally, like with reading, we work to teach things that your dog not only will be good at doing, but that he will want to do simply because he likes doing those things. Working the clicker back in on occasion may help sharpen a behavior, or bring it to a new level. This is thanks to smartly using an “intermittent rate of reinforcement.” Intermittent rates of reinforcement are what make us play slot machines, write movie scripts and do online dating: Maybe the next time will be the lucky time!
Good trainers make a quick transition from food rewards to real life rewards: Good things in life (the food bowl is put down, the back door opens, the ball is thrown) happen immediately following the marker that has indicated correct behavior.
However, if you want to see progress with a new behavior we suggest a minimum of two 2-minute “official” sessions each day, and a maximum of however much time you’d like.
We teach tricks because, to a dog, everything is a trick. Behavior is merely doing. There is no evidence that suggests dogs differentiate between learning things that we might classify as merely cute and learning things that are useful. Sitting at the curb is as much of a “trick” as playing dead.
Teaching tricks is a fun way to hone your dogs learning skills, practice your training skills, and spend time with a dog without having to leave your living room. The more able a human is at teaching a dog a cute trick, the better able she will be at communicating to a dog when something non-cute needs to happen in a real life situation: spitting out a chicken bone, getting off the couch, stopping from running in front of a car, etc.
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