Training a Dog to Train Me

In today’s world, everybody focuses on the negatives. The media reports bad news. People notice faults in everyone else, as well as themselves. In parenting, children doing something wrong rarely go unpunished, but when they do something right, it is seldom rewarded.

As a parent, I fell right into the trend. Little time was spent praising my five-year-old daughter for the things she did right, while most of my energy was focused on the things she did wrong. Consistency was a huge flaw: I’m not sure I ever rewarded the same act or punished one on a consistent basis.

Fortunately, I was privileged with an internship training future service dogs. Training a dog requires patience I never realized I could have. And while I was training the dogs, they were also training me, unknowingly at first, how to be a better parent.

A Constant Watchfulness

With dog training, simple tasks like “sit,” “down,” “stay” and “come” are all very basic. More advanced tasks, such as opening a door or turning on or off a light are very time consuming and stressful – both for the dog and the trainer.

Shaping the behavior of a dog, as well as a child, requires a constant watchfulness, almost as if you need eyes in the back of your head. It also requires consistent positive and negative reinforcement. Correcting mistakes while rewarding for a job well done are both crucial for development.

Take the dog and the light switch, for example. Never in my life have I been more annoyed, more impatient, and more ready to give up. Prior to learning this task, the dog is taught various other tasks and behaviors that aid in the process, such as “here,” “sit,” and “look.” As with everything, we all have our own pace of learning, our own intelligence, and our own forms of motivation and our problem-solving skills.

Two Dogs, Two Learning Styles

You can have two dogs, one more intelligent whose motivation is treat-driven (Navi), versus a slower one who is just eager to please (Gabe). You will get two completely different and creative responses to the training to get the reward they are looking for.

To shape the behavior you need, you use gradual steps. First, you place the dog in a “sit” in front of the light, and give the command “look” as you point towards the switch. Next comes the command “light,” which has various steps, including luring the dog to the switch with your finger, getting them to touch their nose to it, and then flipping the light switch on. Consistency is key. If, in the beginning stages, you reward the wrong thing, or miss an opportunity to reward, you create confusion.

With Navi, the beginning was easy. She followed the treat to the light, and put her nose on it over and over again, each time to get the treat. As the treats started to go away and more was required from her, her motivation went away, along with her judgment.

Without the resulting treat, she saw no need to attempt that behavior, so her creativity and problem solving kicked in and she did a ‘down’ and looked up for the treat. When no treat came, she would wait me out, thinking she was smarter and more patient.

Gabe would follow the same steps in the beginning, but when it came to the last step, he wanted the treat, but was even more eager to receive praise and make me happy. He went out of his way to perform every task he already knew: “sit,” “down,” “turn,” “roll,” and so on. Not getting a treat would make Gabe try anything to please.

When this point was reached, a simple positive correction, “nope,” was given to stop the wrong behavior. Dogs, as well as children, can sense when they are in charge of a situation. You can’t make it personal, but at the same time, you can’t lose.

The next step was to reattempt the task. Again, patience and calm were critical, and at times very difficult. This process was repeated until I achieved the desired outcome; in this case, the actual effort to flip the switch, even if it was unsuccessful. Always ending on a positive note was key for the dog to learn and be enthusiastic about trying again next time the switch was presented.

Find Your Child’s Motivation

The same idea applies to children. Each child is different and has their own motivation and agenda, so each child ultimately requires different techniques to get the appropriate response. Bad behavior that is punished while good behavior goes unnoticed simply leads to more bad behavior. Simple reward systems such as money for grades, time in front of the television or computer for good behavior, or even a simple “good job” will go a long way in shaping a child to perform properly and advance in life.

In the beginning, my parenting techniques were not very well established. My patience was low, and I rarely rewarded my daughter for doing something right, but harped on her for doing something wrong. If I wanted something done, I expected it right away, not in 10 minutes. If I told her not to do something, she had better not – or else.

To be fair, a lot of my parenting was related to my experience with my own parents. I have no problem with how I was raised, but I believe there is always a better way to do things. I know, for example, that my parents’ reactions caused me to rebel a lot more than most kids, and I feared the same for my daughter. What I desire for her, more than anything, is that she grow up to be a respectable, high-functioning member of society.

A Better Parent

Working with dogs has slowly but surely molded my behavior into a more efficient way of parenting. I am more patient. I shape my responses, and what I notice. I push through difficult learning experiences, like teaching my daughter letters and numbers, and how to read and write.

The ability to tolerate her pace and reward her for her attempts has been key, and she has made vast improvements as I have employed these new techniques. Working with the dogs has given me a common connection to be able to teach my daughter, and the dogs have trained me just as much – if not more – than I have trained them.

I still have a lot of work and progress ahead, but the foundation is there, and continues to grow. I still don’t have it all figured out, but it has brought out a new person in me, as well as in her. She has her boundaries, knows what is expected of her, and loves the rewards she receives for doing it right.

Sgt. Gordon is a former Warrior Trainer at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence. In 2013, Sgt. Gordon was the recipient of service dog Birdie at Warrior Canine Connection’s first graduation.