Consistency in dog training is important, we all know that, but do you know why? I’ll explain what it means to be consistent and predictable. I’ll also tell you what happens when you stop being consistent, and how you can use that to your advantage. You might be surprised…
If you tried to take your dog for a walk right now, I’ll bet you could tell me exactly how your dog would react. I’ll bet you could describe to me how excited he would be. You’d know that he starts getting excited when you put your trainers (not your work shoes) on. You’d know where he would stand to get his lead on and if you have to chase him around the kitchen table first. I’m sure you could tell me how long he jumps around for before you can even get the lead near him, and how he mouths the harness when you don’t have a treat in your hand. You’d know how long it would take him to settle before you opened the door, and how he barges past you when it finally does open!
You know all that because you go through the same routine every single day. You know exactly what to expect from your dog. Your dog also knows exactly what to expect from you. And if he’s happy with the result, and you don’t do anything different, you’ll continue with the same routine day in, day out. After all, why would he change?
If he gets a good result, he’ll never change?
Your dog is very good at predicting your behaviour and your routines. Only the other day I was told by a lady that she had tried ignoring her dogs barking but it didn’t work.
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes, she knows that whenever she barks I turn this way, then that way, and then I stand like this, and I can’t take it any more so I shout at her to stop it and give her a biscuit.”
I replied “If she knows that, then she also knows that she only has to wait for you to turn this way, then that way, then stand like this, to get what she originally wanted!”
It worked, so I’m sure it didn’t take long for her dog to figure out that routine.
Rats Vs Humans
In a recent experiment, rats and humans were shown a series of red or green lights. Their job was to predict which colour they would be shown next. If they got it right, they got a treat, if not, they got nothing! The lights were shown randomly at a ration or one red light to four green lights. The rats quickly cordoned on and realised that they were nearly always green so started guessing green every time. The rats were prepared to make a mistake and miss out on some rewards for a guaranteed 80%. They were right to do that! The humans were told how the experiment worked, but still tried to guess the outcome. The despite that, they still only managed to get 68% right!
Dogs would view the problem in the same way as the rats. So, you can see how a little bit of inconsistency can mess up your training. Depending on how rewarding the result may be, the more predictable you have to be to change their behaviour.
What happens when you stop being consistent?
When you stop being consistent, you challenge your dogs expectations. In the example above, the client would have to change the final step so the dog didn’t get her reward after “standing like this”. This could look like turning her back again, or leaving the room, or looking at a book. It could be anything at all that isn’t rewarding, but is different to what’s expected. At first, she’ll continue with plan A, this new behaviour is unexpected, but she has good memories of the old routine.
When you repeat this new step a couple more times, she’ll stop expecting the old behaviour to work for her. She’ll be unsure of what behaviour to expect from you now. No longer will she be relying on old habits and she will start responding to both routines. By being inconsistent, you’ll brake the habit and she’s now ready to learn your changed routine.
This is why your training only works sometimes at the start!
Moving house and going on holiday both break consistency too. These can be ideal times to change behaviours and create new routines. Your dog is already trying to figure out how the change has affected things, so he’s naturally more open to new ways of doing things.
If your training has flagged a little over the weeks and you have a holiday booked, you can take advantage. Remind yourself of the training techniques you started with, and when you come back bring new energy to your training to receive maximum benefit!
When you start being consistent again…
At this stage, you must become predictable, and the only way to do that is to be uber-consistent. If you repeat the exact same steps, every single time, and see it through to the end, every single time, she will forget about the old behaviour entirely and will start to only expect your new behaviour.
When this happens, she’ll be saying to herself “whenever I bark mum turns this way, then that way, and then she stands like this, and then leaves the room, and I get still get nothing.” Once you have become predictable she’ll stop barking as she knows it won’t work. It’ll feel like it gets worse and worse, and then quickly stops.
She might look for a different way to achieve her aims. There are many ways she might use to get your attention, these are “related behaviours” so look out for those cropping up. You might see a few odd behaviours from the past suddenly showing up! But essentially as long as you remain consistent you’ll get there. There are many things that can influence how long it will take to permanently change a behaviour, but essentially, if you can keep it up for long enough, she’ll form a new habit in no time.
I often advise people that it’s better to avoid a situation than do half a job with the training, and this is why. If you get to 10 perfect encounters in a row and then you do a bad one it breaks the consistency. Far better to avoid the situation so you can continue with your perfect streak; 20 in a row is way better than 10 in a row, a break, then another 10 in a row! It’s also why it’s possible for different people to do different things with a dog. As long as you are predictable, your dog will eventually learn what to expect from you, and will behave differently for others.
A perfect example of this is the dog that realised that one member of the family couldn’t go upstairs. When the dog stole something of theirs, he waited at the bottom of the stairs for them to get it back. For everyone else he retreated up the stairs. The dog predicted he wouldn’t get any “sport” from the first person if he went upstairs, so didn’t bother!
Does it work for other types of behaviour?
Absolutely! Consistency works for changing all kinds of behaviours. Whether your dog is anxious, excitable, bossy or whatever; as long as your new behaviour doesn’t achieve his goal and your new behaviour is predictable, he’ll stop! You just have to get past the initial phase when it feels like nothing is happening. Your dog does know what you are doing, but it won’t feel like it, until your new behaviour has become more predictable than the old one.
Need some help finding consistency in dog training?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area, and as far as Tayport and Longforgan. If you are looking for help with your dog then get in touch and we’ll have a chat about the best way I can help you!