If not, this may be something you need to work on.
Just like humans, dogs learn by the consequences of their behaviour.
And just like many humans, dogs are very persistent.
You can tell your dog off for climbing on the sofa, but the chances are, he’ll be back up there again when your back is turned.
Most dogs will put up with quite a lot of aggravation from their owners, to get the things they want. This is not such a bad thing, as we shall see.
The power of persistence
Being persistent has an important purpose in an unpredictable environment. Sometimes we may have to try several times in order to get something we want.
If our ancestors had given up at the first obstacle, we would not be here today.
Likewise, is your dog’s wolf ancestors had given up the hunt for food if they encountered pain or difficulty, they would all have starved.
Check out the video below which beautifully illustrates the power and value of persistence
The inefficiency of punishment
For each of the ducklings above, many of it’s jumps were effectively punished with a nasty fall. You can clearly see that an occasional bad consequence, is not enough to stop any animal attempting to get something it perceives to be valuable.
This is one of the key reasons that punishment is not a very efficient training tool.
To be effective, punishment needs to be not only timely, but persistently and repeatedly applied to the dog. One punishment or even two, is not going to cut it. You are going to have to do it again, and again. Especially if the alternative to what you want him to do, is something of high value to the dog.
There is an exception to this rule. If a punishment is extreme enough, it may be sufficient to change behaviour with a single occurrence.
If your dog is hit by a vehicle and severely injured, he may never wish to go near a vehicle again. If your puppy is savaged within an inch of his life by a large white dog, he may well suffer a life-long fear of large white dogs.This is a sensible strategy that has arisen because it has an evolutionary advantage.
Severe and potentially fatal consequences, obviously need to be avoided at all costs.
By any animal.
But this is not really a strategy that has any value for a dog trainer.
It may be possible to extinguish a particular behaviour in a dog by a single punishment. But that punishment would need to be severe enough to be terrifying or very painful, for it to have the required effect. Not something that most of us would want to inflict on a dog.
Extreme consequences can work with rewards too. An extreme reward can reinforce a behaviour so powerfully, that it becomes very difficult to eradicate.
Such ‘rewards’ are not usually deliberately applied to dogs by people, but will involve the satisfaction of a powerful urge or instinct within the dog himself. An example might be the thrill of the chase for a hunting dog.
We therefore need to be very careful not to allow our dogs access to extreme rewards unless we are in control of the triggers and the outcome.
Persistence is the key
You can see that the use of extreme punishers (and even extreme reinforcers) is not going to be the best long term strategy for training a dog.
If we cannot use extremes, it is clear that we are going to have to use the alternatives. We are going to have to be persistent too. We will need to persistently apply less extreme consequences on a regular and consistent basis.
Nowadays, more and more people are uncomfortable with the regular and repeated application of punishment. This leaves us with one alternative. The regular and repeated application of reinforcement – using rewards.
And this is one reason why positive reinforcement training has been adopted in almost every dog training sport and discipline throughout the western world.
But does it work?
But is it possible to train effectively without punishment? Won’t our dogs be spoiled and badly behaved if we don’t punish them?
Fortunately for us, positive reinforcement training, properly and persistently applied, is highly effective.
In the next article, we’ll look at the evidence for positive reinforcement training, and dispel some of the myths about this exciting and progressive way of raising and educating a happy and well behaved dog.
Positive reinforcement training is about taking control of what drives and motivates your dog. About creating situations where the dog will throw his heart and soul into getting what you have to offer and taking what you are happy to give.
And that is what this website is all about.
Write it down
Because dogs are very persistent, as dog trainers we need to be persistent too, and this is a behaviour we can cultivate and develop in ourselves.
Being persistent means setting achievable goals and focusing on each one until you have mastered it. It means accepting that your dog might not ‘get it’ in this session, or the next, but keeping at it until he does.
It sometimes means being willing to lower the bar a little and revisit easier stages in the training process if the dog is struggling. And it sometimes means being willing to ‘wait’ the dog out, and letting him try and try again.
Sometimes progress will be slow, painfully slow. But then there will be rushes of achievement where your dog seems to be flying along. So whatever is happening right now, today, is just a small part of a large picture. All you need to do is keep your targets in mind and keep training!
It is much easier to do this if you keep a written record of what you achieve in your training session, and what you plan to tackle in your next one. Looking back, you will be able to see how far you have come, and to look at where your dog’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
So I strongly recommend that you get yourself a little notebook to record your training progress, and commit to updating it each day.
Successful dog training really is a question of ‘sticking to your guns’, planning the stages of your training, and keeping doggedly at it, until you succeed.
You can do it!
Like so many of life’s journeys, you will get back, what you put in.
Let us know if you or your dog has overcome a problem using persistence. Drop your thoughts in the comments box below.