Incorporating Training into Management

We have a dog now!

After having read a bunch of books and doing some clicker training with Lydia, I’ve now been doing it with a very food-motivated, very trainable breed of dog. Wow, is it much easier. The dog is totally happy to remain focused on me for dozens of minutes at a time in order to eat tiny pieces of cheese or liver. And he’ll repeat behaviors over and over again. The feedback loop for my own learning is much tighter, though I’m also in a pretty forgiving situation with the dog.

Lydia, primate that she has, has been pretty inclined to imitate both me and the dog during the sessions, but it’s impossible to directly motivate in the way that I do with the dog.

But anyway, those are just some scattered thoughts. What I actually want to write about is training, management, and how and whether to combine them, though my thoughts there are somewhat rambling, still, too.

With the dog, it’s easy to do a dedicated training session that’s pretty long where he can learn useful like skills. The first few days, before he was reliably looking at me when I said his name, coming when I called, going up and down stairs on his own, heading for the lawn when he had to pee or poop, or playing with his toys over other household objects most of the time were difficult. I invested a bunch of time into training each behavior listed above. 

But I also needed to take care of him as I was training him. Good training (of the style that I’ve subscribed to) involves not using cues when they aren’t well-established and not repeating them when the subject doesn’t comply. Fair enough. So I try not to abuse the cues I want to be most reliable, but if Argus is wandering into the living room, possibly to start peeing, when I’m in the kitchen feeding Lydia, it seems like the right call to call him twice if he doesn’t come when I do it once. 

I like the philosophy of shaping and capturing behavior without using lures and prompts. Lots of trainers claim to have anecdotal evidence that it teaches the animal to think for itself more. This makes sense to me. 

But in time-sensitive real-life situations, I find myself using lures and prompts quite a bit. Management can be done mostly with things the animal likes (luring him away from fragile or dangerous stuff with food), mostly with things the animal doesn’t like (yelling at him when he does things I don’t like), or by keeping him physically restrained. Most modern positive dog training books recommend using the crate quite often. I’m not willing to do that. It seems aesthetically wrong, and my intuitions advise against. 

Many people don’t want to take time to do dedicated training with their dogs. They would much rather incorporate training into everyday life. I am willing to do dedicated training, but I want my management techniques to be useful teaching tools as well. And in situations that don’t involve the dog, (Lydia yes, but also everyone I interact with), I want to be teaching in more informal situations.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do it:

  1. Always be on the lookout for behavior I like and be prepared to reward it. That’s the biggest one, and it’s classic advice, but it’s hard to do consistently. Do I usually notice when Argus looks over and decides not to chase Lydia while she’s waving the towel around?
  2. Say the cue you’re trying to teach just as the subject is about to do the thing you’d like. Say “down” when I see Argus lying down on his own. Say “come here!” when I see Lydia coming towards me. With adult humans, this exact thing could get obnoxious, but building compliance by asking for things in situations where people are inclined to agree works. (This can be nefarious, of course, but I have in mind things like asking a roommate to help unload the dishwasher when he’s hanging out in the kitchen anyway.)
  3. If you see behavior you don’t like, be willing to use prompts and lures, but try to transition away from them. When the dog has something that I do need back, I will say give it first, but if he doesn’t do it willingly I’ll put a treat by his nose. Maybe he’s not thinking for himself as much, but he’s catching on. (We do dedicated training of this one also, which I’m sure helps.) If I call Lydia and she doesn’t come over right away, I’m totally willing to do something to attract her attention. I just ordered a clean/dirty sign for the dishwasher for our house. That’s a visual prompt I’m fine using permanently though.
  4. Keep mental notes of things you have to keep managing, and figure something out. One advantage to delaying dedicated training is that lots of issues just go away. Lydia doesn’t chew power cords anymore. I’m not really sure why. The dog seems to slowly be getting over stealing diapers in favor of other activities. But, I can tell it’s going to be useful to have a rock-solid leave it, since he’s still learning what he can and can’t have. We decided to work on clicker training Lydia to relax in the car seat when we realized it might be years before she grew out of hating it.