The day I brought home my first German Shepherd I was overwhelmed and totally unprepared! But I had grown up in a home with German Shepherds…
Nicky, Sasha, Fido and Rex had been my playmates throughout my childhood and teens. Dad was responsible for training and I did my bit with feeding, grooming and playing.
Fido shared his food with me every night; he didn’t mind that I stuck my chubby toddler hands into his bowl to scoop up a bite of food. Rex our white German Shepherd loved nothing more than chilling with me under the grapevine or digging around in my sandpit with me alongside.
As I grew older and said goodbye to Rex and then Fido, Sasha and Nicky – a mother and daughter duo – became my new best friends. And they were fierce! They growled and snarled at any boys who came to visit and comforted me when I felt like I was dying of a broken heart.
So why was I so overwhelmed as an adult by a breed I knew inside out? Why did I doubt my decision to bring a new dog into my home?
Lupo – which means wolf in Italian – was nothing like the German Shepherd friends I grew up with. He peed in the house, he cried when he found himself alone somewhere and he chewed on my furniture, shoes and drapes – all within the first hour of arriving.
After 2 whole days and sleepless nights of peeing, crying and chewing, I was ready to give up. So I called my dad up who was living about 3 hours away – I was crying. I explained what had happened, told him I thought I’d made a big mistake and asked his advice on what I should do.
This is what he told me…
“Gabriella, you don’t own a dog, you raise a dog, you’ve got a new born baby on your hands and you’re going to teach him everything he needs to know.”
“Now toughen up princess!” He said.
After chatting to him for a while, getting as much information as I could I hung up the phone, took 2 weeks off work and started doing research. I was determined to make this work…
So how did things turn out for Lupo and me?
You’ll have to wait to find out. But first, let’s take a look at how Behavioral Psychology is the doorway to dog learning and communication.
Do You Speak Dog?
The foundation of training a German Shepherd is the art of learning to communicate with your dog.
Dogs are not humans and humans are not dogs. Your dog does not expect you to walk on all fours, take the play stance when it’s time for a game of fetch, bark or growl. You don't need to act like a dog to communicate with your dog.
Unfortunately, there are many websites that promote this kind of communication. Despite popular belief, your dog knows you’re a human and that he’s a dog.
If you want to communicate with your dog in a language you both understand, you first need to understand how your German Shepherd learns. This will give you and your dog the best chance at successful engagement and training.
Canine Learning Theory
I’ve written briefly about Pavlov and his salivating dogs in my post about clicker training. Basically during an experiment on the salivation rate of dogs Pavlov stumbled across the concept of conditioned reflex. He noticed each time the dogs saw the technician, who was responsible for feeding the dogs, they would salivate.
To further test this ‘reflex’ Pavlov introduced a ringing bell just before feeding dogs. As you can imagine after a few repetitions, each time bell rang the dogs would salivate. This is called Classical Conditioning or Associated Learning.
Classical Conditioning is used in dog learning to establish a communication system. This is the type of learning a dog does when making the connection between a marker and a reward.
With Classical Conditioning your dog is not required to do anything or participate. All she does is build emotional responses by observing her environment.
B.F Skinner is the father of Operant Conditioning which is also known as Instrumental Learning. Operant Conditioning is the cornerstone of dog learning and what Marker Training or Clicker Training is based on.
Operant Conditioning requires that your pooch participates in the training. This means your dog becomes an active participant and develops her understanding between a behavior and a consequence through feedback given by the trainer.
Operant Conditioning is broken up into four quadrants. Some dog trainers make the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning difficult to understand. But it’s not difficult at all and as a dog owner understanding these quadrants will help you make the best decisions when training your dog.
It is important to note that Operant Conditioning is neither a pro-reward or aversive stimuli training method. Both good and bad trainers use the principals of Operant Conditioning in training. Although, it is interesting to note that B.F Skinner said;
“Properly used, positive reinforcement is extremely powerful”.
The 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of Operant Conditioning I want to make it clear that I don’t advocate or use on my own dogs ALL of these 4 quadrants. I don’t use any kind of social pressure or physical corrections. I am a force-free, reward based trainer and that’s what I promote. But it is beneficial for you as a dog owner to have clarity on all the quadrants to help you protect your dog from bad trainers and make the best decisions for your dog.
These quadrants are made up of positive, negative, reinforcement and punishment. Let’s break these down into their meanings and use them to define each quadrant…
Positive – this is adding something to the equation
Negative – this is removing something from the equation
Reinforcement – this means the behavior is more likely to occur again
Punishment – this means the behavior is less likely to occur again
Positive Reinforcement (R+) – rewarding the dog with something it wants for performing a desired behavior. An example of this would be a toy or treats.
Positive Punishment (P+) – giving a correction to the dog to discourage certain behavior. An example of this would be a leash pop or finger poke.
Negative Reinforcement (R-) – removing an unpleasant stimulus when the dog performs the desired behavior. An example of this would be the shock from an e-collar is turned off once the dog performs the correct behavior. It is the dog’s behavior that turns off something it finds unpleasant.
Negative Punishment (P-) – withholding something the dog wants to discourage current behavior.
Which Quadrant is the best for dog learning?
If you ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different opinions on what the best way is to train your German Shepherd. Unfortunately there are still too many books, trainers and TV dog trainers that promote using aversive and out-dated techniques to train dogs.
And even more websites and articles online are giving out poor information and training advice that damage dogs – causing long term psychological and physical trauma and destroy the dog-owner relationship.
Positive dog training is based on positive reinforcement, and discipline-based training uses a combination of negative reinforcement and positive punishment.
For my own German Shepherds and the GSD’s I work with at a local shelter I use only Positive Reinforcement training and this is what I promote on GSC.
It is the most effective way to train dogs, especially the highly intelligent and sensitive German Shepherd Dog.
But don’t take my word for it…
Studies have proven over and over again that positive training provides more effective results, eliminates stress, improves the welfare of dogs and builds a strong dog-owner bond.
A study done by the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Namur in Belgium studied the performance of 66 dogs based on the training methods used. 33 dogs in the control group were trained using the aversive methods of the Belgian Defense. The other 33 dogs in the experimental group were trained using positive training methods.
What they found was not only did the experimental group have better overall results from training but the dogs displayed a higher, more confident body posture and increased levels of concentration than the control group.
Another study done by French researchers from the Universities of Pairs-Nord and Aix-Marseille focused on the effect of positive training and discipline-based training styles on the stress level of the dogs.
The study ground was two local dog training schools; one discipline-based and one positive-training focused. Familiar exercises like sit and heeling on a leash were tested.
What the researchers were looking for were obvious stress signals like; yawning, mouth licking, shivering, scratching, sniffing, low posture and whether the dog made eye contact with the owner. 26 dogs trained in discipline style training and 24 in positive training were included in the study.
The results are staggering and speak for themselves…
65% of the dogs trained using a discipline-based style showed at least one stress signal, compared with 8% of the dogs trained using a positive-based style.
During the specific behaviors the differences in stress levels was highlighted even more…
|Stress Indicator||Positive (%)||Discipline (%)|
|Low Body Posture||8%||46%|
|Dog to Owner Eye Contact||88%||38%|
The results of this study suggest that positive reinforcement training methods are less stressful where discipline-based training styles cause stress, fear and mistrust in dogs.
How to use Positive Training in Dog Learning
Reward Based Training is the foundation of positive dog training or positive reinforcement training. It is centered on the dog earning rewards for correct behavior. The rewards are known as primary reinforcers and these can be food rewards, toy rewards, play sessions, physical or verbal praise.
Reward based training is about setting your dog up for success.
Reinforced behaviors tend to be repeated and behavior that is not enforced will eventually die out. This is a very simplified explanation of reward based training, there are many nuances and the subject deserves a post all of its own.
The Power of Food in Dog Learning
All dogs like food, but not all dogs like toys, play sessions or a lot of petting. This makes food the most effective tool in reward based training. A food treat can be delivered quickly to reward behavior and if it’s the right size and not too hard or crumbly your pooch will quickly eat it and be ready to focus on the training session again.
Food is a great way for beginner owners and dogs to take the first step into reward based training. It’s not uncommon for owners to mix up training with food, toy or play rewards as their dog becomes more experienced and fluid in training.
Two key things to keep in mind with food rewards are; they MUST be high value, to keep your dog engaged. And Size matters; a too small or too large treat will make your dog lose focus and checkout of the training.
The subject of rewards also deserves it’s very own post, so I’ll be diving deeper into the art of rewards and reward management in another post. But let’s quickly look at how you can ask your dog which treats he likes best…
- Hold a treat in your hand, close enough to your dog’s nose for him to smell it but out of his grasp.
- Then set it down on the floor in front of him, still keeping it out of his reach.
- Do the same with another treat of a different kind. For example; cheese for the first treat and steak for the second treat.
- Now allow your dog access to the treats to see which one he eats first.
You should do this a few times and change around the order and position of the treats. Keep notes on your dog’s choices and you’ll quickly find out which one he likes best.
Later you can add two more different treats into the mix and follow the same steps. This way your dog will help you assign values to the treats. Training that requires a higher level of motivation will need a higher value treat. With the useful information from your dog about treat values, you can make the best choice for specific training.
The belief that training your dog with treats will make him dependent on treats and you’ll be walking around with pockets full of treats for all eternity is a myth.
Remember in Operant Conditioning a tool like treats is only used to create and establish a particular behavior in your dog.
Once your dog has made the connection between his behavior and the reward you will begin adding verbal cues or hand gestures. And as your dog becomes more fluid in a particular behavior your verbal cues or hand gestures will begin to replace the treats. This is called fading.
Reinforcement schedules play an important role not just in shaping new behaviors in our dogs but also to systematically remove tools like food treats when the time is right. There are three reinforcement schedules which determine how often a treat is offered for a correct behavior, which is known as a reward ratio.
Continuous (CRF): every response is followed by a reward. This is a very useful reward ratio in the beginning stages of learning a new behavior to help the dog make the connection between his response and the reward. An example of this is;
Fixed (FR): there’s a fixed ratio between the response of the dog and the reward earned. This is a great reward ratio to use once your dog has made the connection and gaining fluidity in the new behavior. It’s also useful to start introducing duration into the behavior. An example of this is;
sit/stay, sit/stay, sit/stay-reward.
Variable (VR): here the number of responses before rewarding varies. This reward ratio is the final step in fading out a tool used to create the behavior. It’s best used once your dog is effortlessly performing a behavior and has already been conditioned by the Fixed Ratio. An example of this is;
Do This, Don’t Do That – The Difference between Behavior and Obedience Training
Many new dog owners are confused and unsure of the difference between Obedience Training and Behavior Training. And unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there. For example; I came across a German Shepherd website recently promoting their products that encourage owners to completely scrap obedience training to focus only on behavior training.
The writer of the article doesn’t outright say it but alludes to the fact that Obedience Training is not based on motivation and states that his form of training is.
Well, the fact of the matter is that all dog training is based on motivation. A dog will be just as motivated to perform a behavior for a food or toy treat as he would be to remove some unpleasant stimuli (punishment) like a leash pop, social pressure, or an e-collar shock.
He also claims that obedience training is less superior to his form of behavior training because obedience requires lifelong commitment and dogs require refreshers from time to time.
The truth is that like humans if we don’t continue to practice skills we’ve learned like a language, math, tennis, or our golf swing we will become rusty – the same is true for dogs with ANY training. Dog training is a constant throughout the life of your dog.
Not only that, but this guy is teaching people that Obedience Training causes aggression in German Shepherds! This is absolutely false and a ludicrous notion to say the least.
It's the style of training that causes aggression in dogs. Aversive, punishment and discipline-based training techniques have the potential to cause aggression whether it's in obedience or behavior training.
This type of information is ignorant at best and dangerous at worst and as dog owners, we should be very careful whose advice we take.
Obedience and Behavior Training look the same but the goal, outcome and reward structures are different.
OK, so let’s get back to the difference between Obedience Training and Behavior Training and where these pieces fit into the dog learning puzzle.
Whether you’re bringing home a new German Shepherd puppy, you’ve just adopted a rescue or you’re older GSD is in need of learning ‘new tricks’ – Obedience training should start as soon as possible.
Generally, the obedience behaviors we teach are things like sit, stay, down, stand, back up, recall, fetch, drop it, etc. Essentially Obedience training is teaching your dog to DO something.
It is important to note here that Obedience Training will not address behavioral issues. For example; a dog can still be ill-mannered and jump on visitors but be completely obedience trained.
Behavior training is also known as Behavior Modification Training. Essentially this is teaching your dog NOT to do something. What may be unwanted behavior for one owner will be acceptable for another but generally, things like;
- Nuisance barking
- Charging the door/gate
- Poor Recall
- House Breaking
- Chasing cars or people
Are things we don’t want our dogs to do or do in a certain place – like going to potty.
The focus is on finding the root cause of the behavior and using techniques like redirection and Classical Counter Conditioning to alter the physiological and psychological state of your dog.
For example; a dog that doesn’t ‘take nicely’ and snatches food from your hand or jumps on visitors lacks impulse control in these specific situations.
Working with German Shepherd rescues, I learned that some behaviors can’t be modified 100%. This could be due to temperament, the environment, and background. I’ve seen this in my rescue GSD Charley.
I know that she will always be human-reactive and I know it’s because of her abusive past. So I have a specific routine and a set of rules in place for visitors that come around, especially if there are children.
I manage the behavior that can't be modified. As much as we would like our dog to experience everything life has to offer, it is our duty as dog owners to identify the limitations of our dogs and respect their boundaries of comfort.
Build Devotion Through Dog Learning
Armed to the teeth (no pun intended!) with a better understanding of how your dog learns you have the foundation to communicate and engage with your dog like never before.
If done correctly with the dog's well-being in mind, your dog will become totally devoted to you, want to please you, and be thoroughly engaged in the training sessions.
Remember, when you’re working with your dog he has a mind. He’s hardwired to learn, that’s one of the reasons dogs have evolved alongside us for thousands of years. The way you approach your dog’s training will determine your dog’s success.
With great courage and determination Lupo and I took on his training, and he became a master at tricks and agility. He was a real little charmer! Although it was more difficult for him to learn because he was ill.
Sadly, he was diagnosed with Endocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency when he was only 18 months old. EPI is a devastating disease that can rear its ugly head suddenly and without warning and I will write about this disease in a future post.
Within 3 months Lupo’s pancreas was so damaged and his little body was wasting away and no longer responding to any treatment. There was nothing my vet could do to slow down this disease. I could tell my boy was suffering and in pain.
On November 14th, 2003 with a heavy heart, I said goodbye to my friend and he crossed over the rainbow bridge where he would be free of pain and suffering to frolic amongst the butterflies.
In the less than two years that Lupo and I had together, he became my mentor and my teacher. He taught me the art of communicating with dogs. He showed me every day that I was working with a highly intelligent sentient being that was hungry to learn and grow. But most importantly he was my best friend.
It’s hard for me to talk or think about Lupo without feeling a deep sense of loss, even 12 years later – he left so soon. But along with the bitterness of loss comes the sweet memories of fun times, high energy, and lots of love and cuddles. I wouldn’t exchange that for the world. R.I.P little Buddy!
The Key takeaways here are:
- You don't have to act like a dog to communicate with your German Shepherd.
- Classical Conditioning sets the stage for communication.
- Operant conditioning develops your dog's understanding of behavior and consequence.
- Positive reinforcement gives the best results, eliminates stress, and builds a strong dog-owner bond.
- Reward-based training sets your dog up for success.
- Food is a powerful tool in training.
- There IS a difference between Obedience and Behavior Training – BOTH are important.
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