This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section One of the Beginner's Course

Dog Training Basics
Page One of a twelve-page section

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The Emotional Life of Your Dog.

While teaching a psychology course to a group of college students, I once made reference to a dog I had known who became depressed, which drew loud laughter from the class. It's usually kind of fun to make people laugh out loud, but not that time.

The dreadful realization I had at that moment is that the class was laughing because it had never before occurred to them that a dog could become depressed. But what distressed me more yet is that the group was made up largely of people who had dogs of their own at home.

It frightened me then as it does now to think how many people there are who seem to believe that their dog has no inner, emotional life. I guess that explains how it is that so many people are able to do such cruel things to their dogs without an instant of reflection or a moment of remorse.

Let me tell you now that dogs are perfectly capable of becoming depressed. Indeed, dogs are subject to the full range of emotions we humans experience. Elation, joy, anticipation, loneliness, boredom, dread, despair, hope, desperation, depression, anxiety, hatred, rage, longing, and love. Really, you name it. No emotion known to man is beyond the capacity of your dog. Even the foulest and most loutish of curs is still a sensitive, sentient being in his own right, who is capable of the entire sweep of every emotion experienced by you or me.

However, I raise the issue of canine emotion not just as an ethical concern, but also because it is the key to controlling your dog's behavior, and the secret to successful dog training.

To the Extent that You Can Control Your Dog's Emotions, You Can Control Your Dog

Imagine that you could have electrodes implanted in the pleasure and anxiety centers of your dog's brain, so that with the push of a button, you could make the animal feel anxious, or you could cause him to experience great joy.

With a device like that you could easily get your dog trained up to perfection in no time.

To accomplish that, all you would have to do is to keep him with you so you could watch him closely. Then, whenever he did something that you were teaching him not to do, you could push the button and make him feel anxious. If you could cause your dog to feel anxious and unhappy every time he ever did anything that he shouldn't do, he would soon stop engaging in those problematic behaviors altogether.

Right? That's all pretty straight forward. If your dog felt extremely anxious every time he chased a cat, he would stop chasing cats. And if he felt notably upset every time he dug a hole in the backyard, he would stop digging holes in the yard. Because your dog is likely to stop doing those things that consistently produce a consequence that he would rather avoid.

Now, in addition to making your dog feel anxious and unhappy every time he did something wrong, imagine the effect it would have on him if you also pressed his pleasure button every time he did something good. So, for example, every time that your dog did not bark at the mail carrier, you could make him feel elated. Or every time he walked obediently by your side you could cause him to feel ecstatic. If you kept that up over time, always filling your dog with pleasure every time he did something right, he would soon begin to behave well at all times, and if you also continued to make him anxious whenever he did something wrong, he would just completely stop doing anything that you did not want him to do.

Of course, you can't implant emotion-governing electrodes into your dog's brain, but clearly, one can see that to the extent that you can control your dog's emotions, you can control your dog's behavior.

If you grasp that principle in all of its profundity, and the implications of that connection have not been lost on you, then you are well positioned to train your dog up to his maximum potential. The trick is to learn how to gain the necessary degree of control over your dog's emotions.

Happenstance Training versus Command Training

When someone speaks of dog training, most people think of command training in which you teach your dog to respond in very exact ways to very specific instructions like sit, stay, stand, and come. That's what that sort of work is all about. It is the science of teaching your dog to follow directions.

However, there is a second type of training, which I call happenstance training or incidental training.

Of the two types of instruction, command training tends to get all the glory because the results can be so dramatic, especially with the large breeds, like German Shepherds and Labs. It can be breathtaking to watch a large, well-muscled dog respond instantly to a crisp command. But of the two types of instruction, happenstance training is by far the more powerful determinant of how much you are going to enjoy living with your dog.

The mechanism of happenstance training is just exactly parallel to the concept I just described, in which you control your dog by controlling his emotions. Indeed, that is the essence of happenstance training - you make sure that your dog feels good when he is good, and you make sure that he feels bad when he is bad. What's more, you keep it all proportional, so that when he is really good, you make sure that he feels just great! But if he does something so extreme that it could get him killed or get you sued, then, you make sure that he feels just awful. That's what happenstance training is all about.

The purpose of happenstance training is not so much to make your dog obey as it is teach him how to behave. It is through happenstance training that your dog becomes socialized, develops a conscience, acquires your sense of right and wrong, and learns to tell the difference between what is and is not acceptable. Hence, it is the quality of your dog's happenstance training that will determine your stress level as you cohabitate with the animal through the years.

A dog whose behavior has been properly conditioned through happenstance training will seldom need to be corrected, because he will almost always be doing just exactly what he should.

The General Idea of Happenstance Training

Unlike command training, in which you initiate the interaction and control its timing, happenstance training is a reactive approach in which you wait for your dog to do something and, then, you respond to what he does.

The word incidental is defined by Webster's as "occurring by chance and without intention," which makes the term incidental training an apt synonym for happenstance training.

In happenstance training, or incidental training as we sometimes call it, you wait for your dog to do something forbidden, then respond to his misbehavior by immediately doing something that will make him feel at least somewhat upset, so that he will come to have unpleasant associations with that particular bad behavior and, thereby, develop an aversion to engaging in the forbidden response again in the future.

At the same time you are doing that, you wait and watch for your dog to engage in any of those behaviors that you would like to encourage. And when he does, you take immediate steps to make sure that he feels good, so that he will come to associate good behavior with positive affect.

Obviously, it is good to go on forever treating your dog well, as you help him feel good in exchange for his continuously good behavior. That's not something that you ever want to stop doing.

However, the other end of the equation is more problematic. Few people enjoy correcting their dog's bad behavior, because it can wear you down and spoil your mood if you have to be forever, endlessly correcting your dog. It can get a little old for your dog, too.

The question arises then, how many times will you have to correct your dog before he takes the hint and once and for all, forever stops doing whatever it is that you are trying to stop him from doing - never to do it again?

The Phenomenon of Once-in-a-Lifetime Behavior Problems

For many people, if you were to add up all the hours they spend trying to get their dogs to behave in some particular way, you would find that over the course of the animal's lifetime, those owners spent an enormous amount of time correcting their dogs, only to find that the animals never did reach the point where they could really be counted on to behave as their masters wanted. Some people find that, over the course of their dog's lifetime, they spend a cumulative total of as much as twenty or thirty hours just telling their dogs to be quiet, only to find that the inappropriate barking never does ease up, and others spend months just trying to housebreak their dogs.

On the other hand, I have known dogs who only had to be corrected once in their entire lives, regarding some particular response. For example, I knew a dog who started to pee in the house - one time - and he never did it again. And he started to chew a book - one time - and he never did that again either. Just once, he growled inappropriately at someone, and even though he grew into the most reliable and discerning of watchdogs and an industrial strength guard dog, throughout his entire life, we never again had a problem with him growling when he shouldn't be. It was the same story in terms of his interactions with other dogs. He started to bully another dog just once - and after that - well, that never happened again either.

I could go on and on writing about dogs I have known who, at least in terms of some particular variable, only misbehaved once in their entire lives. If your goal is to get your dog trained with as little hassle as possible, this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon should be of tremendous interest to you.

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This page on Dog Training Basics is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network