Training Without Conflict

There is a lot of conflict in our daily lives – I think anyone who goes to work can vouch for this. We also send our dogs conflicting messages all of the time – changing the rules suddenly to suit a new shift in our training, a new progression, or a new goal. Just like me at work, it leaves our dogs going wtf??!!

Pretty much everyone knows I am up to my ears in my first foray into protection sport training, and nowhere is conflict more prevalent than in protection sports. I have spent the last 8 months jacking up Mulder to bite the decoy – back tie, agitation, changing the agitation and the reward for full grips, and making him feel like a “big boy” – no obedience, all crazy, all the time. Now that he is 16 months and making some progress, it was time to teach him the dreaded “out” – stop biting the decoy when I ask you to. Riiiggghhhttttt. What have I been telling him to do for 8 months – bite the decoy harder, push into the decoy while you bite, more, more, more! Your reward for a good grip is a fight from the decoy – bite him more!

Bite him! Bite him! Bite him!

Bite him! Bite him! Bite him!

Without turning this blog into a mind blowing discussion of learning theory, there are a lot of ways I could go about teaching this to Mulder – I could hammer on him and suddenly make biting very unpleasant and painful so that he lets go – this would work. But it flies in the face of what I have asked him to do for the last bazillion training sessions. But, I could teach him to out by making biting very boring! Malinois hate boring things.

Now we started this process with his ball, and then progressed to his copper pipe, and then to a French linen tug, and we are currently at the bite wedge. We need to progress to sleeves and decoys, but slow and steady wins the race. So with a good dose of patience, I began to teach Mulder that letting go would result in the best reward in the world (next to rolling in fresh poop) – biting!

Here is where we are at:

(and yes, all good training occurs in pj’s and slippers!)

This is called the out through non-reinforcement – I initially made the item boring by freezing it, and the first time we did this, I just waited. He lets go, I mark, and reward! More biting and a little fight. Lather, rinse, repeat. No extra equipment, no hard feelings. Just teaching him that if he lets go when I ask him to, the game will continue. Then I’ll start adding in simple obedience after the out, introducing other people and other equipment. Successful reinforcements of successive approximations will build us a very nice reinforcement history (think savings account at the bank).

Let’s visit this concept of conflict with our pet dog companions. The best example I can think of is with dog-dog reactivity – dogs who are frustrated with not being able to greet.

These days, everyone does a great job socializing their puppies – puppies are out meeting dogs and people like no tomorrow. But what I often see is a puppy pulling on his leash to say hello to a person or dog, with guardian in tow. The puppy learns to pull to get to what he wants – sure, his intentions are good, but the behavior of pulling is rewarded by the interaction with the person/dog.

That puppy wants to go his own way!

That puppy wants to go his own way!

Fast forward to when your puppy is 5 months old – his puppy license has expired and other dogs may no longer find him cute and endearing. At some point, he is going to encounter a dog that is going to find him about as fun as a drunken frat boy in the library, and a poor interaction is going to occur. Now, all of sudden, puppy isn’t allowed to just rock up to other dogs to say hello when he pleases – his conscientious guardian is nervous and holds him back. Puppy lets us know that he didn’t receive this memo about the change in rules by an embarrassing display of reactivity, which then cycles into the guardian becoming nervous and puppy becoming more and more reactive.


While visiting Shelley, Tanya and their four dogs, puppy Mulder (in his camo Christmas collar) kept his eyes on me.


This can be combated by introducing the rules early on – dogs may be met, but other, less “fun” behaviors must occur first, such as eye contact and waiting for permission before exploding into puppy goofy-ness. Not all dogs need to be met – this is a canine life lesson that can begin the day you head out with your new puppy or dog. Teaching a few rules early on are going to save a lot of grief later on down the road and help you avoid conflict.

Whether I want a PSA3 dog or a polite canine companion, I try and keep the end goal in mind, even during puppyhood or when I first get my dog.  I’m lucky in that I find foundation work fun, and while I bumble through obedience and bite work, I am always thinking about how to minimize conflict – conflict sucks up time and energy that could better be spent training and having fun with my dog.

Posted in behavior, behavior consultants, Belgian Malinois, classical conditioning, communication, dog professionals, dog sports, learning theory, obedience training, Ontario, Positive Dog Training, protection sports, PSA, Puppies, Uncategorized.

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