There are many things you can do to make training easier. We’ve talked already about understanding what motivates your dog and mastering the 3Ds. Consistency is yet another facet of training that is key to success when teaching your dog a new skill, mastering an existing one, or even just peacefully coexisting together.
What is consistency?
For our purposes, consistency has a few different aspects. First, it means setting and sticking to clear guidelines that even your dog can understand. If your pup is allowed to jump up on you when you get home, but not strangers or other family members, that could be pretty confusing. While it’s true that dogs can learn a complex rule like this, it’s easiest to keep things simple. We’ll talk about this kind of discrimination in a later post. If they are expected to sit at the door and wait to be released before you let them out to start an adventure, make sure that happens. If they break before the release cue, bring them back inside to try again.
Consistency in training also means using the same cue for a given behavior, and not using it for more than one behavior. If your partner uses “leave it” and you use “off,” your dog may be a little confused. Then again, if you use “down” to mean “lie down on the ground” but also “get off of the couch,” your dog may eventually learn from context which is which, but you’re definitely making it harder for you both.
Setting expectations in your own mind
The first key to bringing consistency to your dog training is to have a clear sense in your own mind of what you want your dog to do in what circumstances, and make sure everyone interacting with your dog is following these guidelines. Again, if you want “no jumping” to be the rule, it has to mean no jumping ever. If your dog gets rewarded for jumping (with the attention they jumped up to get), they will jump more! If you do want your dog to jump on you (sometimes) this is an easy behavior to put on cue, and it can even serve as a real-life reward, instead of a treat. (This is similar to using pulling as a reward during leash walking adventures.) In this case, the consistency will be maintained because you’ll only allow the jumping when you’ve cued it, not at other times.
If there are people in your life who have trouble following your rules, it can be really tricky. If you feel very strongly about a rule, and there’s someone who is undermining it, your first tactic should be to explain that your dog is in training and ask them for assistance. Tell them clearly how they will help, for example, “Please only pet Rocky when he is sitting, lying down or has four paws on the floor. Back away if he jumps up, and return when he’s back to four on the floor.” Thank them profusely when they help! Positive reinforcement is not just for dogs, after all. If the person really doesn’t want to help, and still won’t help you keep things consistent for your dog, you may need to deny them access to your dog. And it may help to explain to them that you’re doing this because they are thwarting your efforts to be consistent. Sound harsh? It is, and punishment like this should always be a last resort, but it may help bring them around to your way of thinking, which is kind of the point!
When you work on training, make sure you’re always keeping in mind how you want the behavior to look. If “leave it” for you means “back away from the item and then sit and stay until I am next to you,” that’s how you should train your dog to respond to that cue.
Managing the environment
Now that you know what the rules are, the next step is to make them clear to your dog. There are two aspects to that: training your dog and managing their environment to set them up for success. We’ve talked about various aspects of training in previous posts, so here we will focus on that second piece.
What does managing the environment entail? Among other things, it means not giving your dog the chance to make the wrong choice and get rewarded for it. So, if you’re working on your recall, and you call your dog while they’re wallowing in a huge mud pit at the dog park (assuming you’ve never worked on such a delicious distraction before), the chances of success are pretty poor. Moreover, if your dog ignores that cue and continues to wallow, they’re actually being rewarded for not coming to you – the very opposite of what you want. In this case, management would include working on this first on a long line, so that you are able to make sure the dog is successful.
Similarly, if you have a dog with a long history of being petted when they jump up on beloved humans, putting a leash on the dog when someone is coming over is a helpful management strategy. You can prevent the behavior you don’t want, by limiting space and access, while working with the human visitor so they know to only interact with your dog when there are four paws politely stuck to the floor.
Cleaning up the kitchen counters so your dog can’t access the food there is another obvious management strategy in the war on counter-surfing. Yes, it would be great if your dog understood that that’s human food, and theirs is in the bin in the corner, but they are scavengers by heritage, and that is a lot to expect of them.
Management is just setting your dog up so that the incorrect choice is impossible to make. This is a big part of consistency, because you never want your dog to be rewarded for making the wrong choice – that’s inconsistent and will create confusion for your dog.
Does this mean I will be rewarding my dog for each good behavior forever?
Yes and no! You should always notice and acknowledge when your dog makes a good choice, via a kind word, a pat on the head, or another reward. But that doesn’t mean you will be delivering treats for every correct behavior every time for the rest of your dog’s life. The one area where you will eventually move toward intentional inconsistency is the delivery of food reinforcement. Dogs (all learners, in fact) exhibit the strongest behaviors when they are “variably reinforced,” which is just a fancy way of saying “not every time and not predictably.” As your dog becomes fluent in a behavior in a broad array of circumstances, you can start only rewarding the very best of that behavior: the fastest sits, for example. However! Never set your dog up for a situation where they are sometimes being rewarded and sometimes being punished for a behavior. This means that you can’t call your dog to come to you and deliver some salmon on Tuesday, but then call them and take them out of the fun to put them right into their crate on Wednesday. That is not consistent. It will leave your dog wondering if today is a salmon day or a fun-ending day, and that will weaken the behaviors you’re working so hard on.
Here’s to consistently unleashing adventures and harnessing fun with your adventurous canine!