Working through a socialization issue? Try not trying so hard. Try using more patience, with less effort. It doesn't look like training. It might not even BE 'training'! Could it be learning anyway?
My dog Lila (motto: "you can't be too careful") is wary of crossing wheelchair ramps, usually at corners of sidewalks, that are covered with rows of quarter-sized bumps, if we haven't encountered them for a while. (This regression with lack of exposure is a classic symptom of a socialization gap -- I don't recall seeing many of them when she was a puppy. Guess what my next puppy will do a lot of.)
So, today, not even thinking about it, I cross a ramp with her, she swings wide to avoid it. I cross back over the same ramp, she swings wide again. I turn back to make a third pass, and deliberately pause, waiting for her to feel ready. I don't know how to characterize what I am "feeling" for, but I don't even look at her. I just wait, believing she will regroup herself, and believing that she can do it when she is ready.
I feel it. We're ready. I say nothing. I do nothing to the leash. I make no eye contact. I make no deliberate body language gesture. I simply step forward. We cross. She stays closer to my side than her usual distance, but does not hesitate, bolt across, or otherwise show any sign of what I know to be a mild level of uncertainty. I don't react at all until a few steps later when we make eye contact. I smile, and we both just know. That was hard, and she did it. It wasn't a big deal, really. We then circle back and cross the same one and two different ones without pausing. She doesn't swing wide or "cling" to me. It's a big deal, but it's no big deal. I don't even bother to look. She knows I know how cool she is. I play it cool, too.
Not a soul realized we were "training", let alone how well it was going. Except me and Lila. (And, really,we're the only ones whose opinions matter.) I didn't work her through the situation like a dog trainer. I didn't cross the ramp like a dog handler or pack leader. If you watched her crossing, you'd have to know you were looking for that just slightly closer than normal proximity to me, and that just slightly lower than normal head carriage. It LOOKS like a regular human being and a regular dog just going about their day. (Ha! "Regular". Me? Lila? Looks are extremely deceiving!) It doesn't look like training.
If it were training, I'd be using a more deliberate cue that means "cross the scary and possibly uncomfortable bumps". It IS training, and the cue to cross the bumps is that there are bumps to cross.
If it were training, I'd be guiding her across, dragging her across, luring her across, placing intermediary surfaces to gradually remove over the course of the next 6 weeks, clicking for one toenail on the ramp,... I should be doing more than just standing there! But this IS training. I elicit her behavior by modeling the crossing several times, indicating my own belief in its safety. I model the target emotional state, which is near boredom. I deliberately wait for her readiness.
If it were training, I'd be using some kind of marker to indicate that she was doing it right. I'd use a release word or cue to mark the end of the exercise. Ok, maybe this isn't training after all. Horrors. Dogs can't learn unless training is being used, right?
If it were training, there'd be a reward of some kind. And "rewards" are only things like treats, petting, praise, play, attention, removal of pressure... Ok, you win. It isn't training. The immediate reward was... nothing! Deliberately!
Are dogs allowed to experience intrinsic motivation? The pride of doing something that was hard? Can dogs tell when we feel pride? Relaxed? Can they add up cross bumps + relaxed+ pride = I think I'll do that again? Can they feel a sense of relief at discovering that what they were worried about was actually nothing?
So, it isn't "training". I didn't shape anything. I didn't punish anything. I didn't work to elicit anything. I didn't reward anything. It's having a relationship. It's understanding that adding excitement while an event occurs helps to define it as "an event". (Crossing bumpy ramps is definitely a non-event, so no excitement.) It's appreciating the level of anxiety, of arousal, and how to avoid elevating it. In the end, it's indisputably learning.
Owners, handlers, and trainers can be motivated to engage in "dog training behaviors" by a mistaken idea of how learning has to look. Learning does not have to look like training, although it can, and often should. But, since we have a fixed idea of what changing a dog's behavior demands from the human's behavior, we repeat that behavior over and over, "rewarded" by the thought that we are "doing it right", or "doing what we should", or even "doing what we have to".
In reality, canine-human interactions have been so successful because both of our species are incredibly adaptable. There is no one "right answer". There is no One True Way.
If we are leashed to a dog who is "misbehaving", some of us feel compelled to look as if we are trying. "I [insert ineffective elicit strategy here: say ssst, get the treats, ask him to sit, jerk the leash] every time he does it, but he doesn't seem to get it. I thought he'd have gotten it by now that his behavior isn't working." It isn't nice, and shame on me, but when I hear this, I think: "Hmm... I thought you'd have gotten it by now that your 'training' isn't working." But, I guess, in the absence of a better strategy, it feels better to be using one that doesn't work but seems like trying, than to do nothing ('nothing') and appear as if we aren't trying.
As anyone who has ever skipped a class to explore the world already knows, learning doesn't just happen inside formal structure. Does formal structure have a place? Absolutely. Is it the only place learning happens? Absolutely not. Is it possible for humans to facilitate a dog's informal learning? I believe that's what I did today.
There are as many ways to learn, to teach, to understand as there are brains. There are many ways to provide formal training. There are many ways to provide informal training. Some of them work for some dogs. A few of them work for a lot of dogs. A lot of them only work for a few dogs. None of them work for every dog.
Keep trying until you find the way that works for you and for your dog, whatever it looks like.
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