Without consistency, a dog becomes inconsistent.
This quote by trainer Diane Garrod of Canine Transformations Learning Center got me thinking about the different roles that consistency plays when it comes to our dogs.
The ultimate goal of any behavior we want to teach our dogs is something called stimulus control. Without going into a technical explanation of what stimulus control is, it basically means:
- When we tell (cue) a dog to sit it sits and does so immediately. Anytime, anyplace.
- When we tell (cue) a dog to sit, it doesn’t lie down or offer another behavior.
- When we tell (cue) a dog to do a different behavior such as lie down, it doesn’t sit in response.
- And finally the dog itself realizes that the behavior of sitting doesn’t hold any consequences for it other than when it’s cued to do so.
The only way to gain stimulus control of a behavior is through patience and consistency. This may sound simplistic but it is actually quite demanding and inflexible. Using the example that Diane gave, let’s look at teaching a dog not to bolt out a door.
Teaching a dog to wait at a door is relatively easy to accomplish. One method is to use simple blocking techniques to stop the dog from bolting. Most dogs will quickly get the idea that you want them to wait. Once they start to get the idea, we begin to pair a verbal or visual (or both) cue like saying “wait” or holding your hand up like a crossing guard.
The problem is that we often assume that a dog has learned the wait behavior after three or four successful session and we start to relax our rule. Sometimes we make the dog wait at the door and sometimes we don’t. The wait behavior is no longer relevant to the dog because the desired consequence of going out the door is not consistently dependent on the wait.
If we want the wait behavior to happen every time the dog is at a door, we have to insist upon it every time until the behavior has come under stimulus control.
That means that we have to insist on the wait when we are half asleep at 5AM and without coffee in our system. We have to insist upon it when we are running late for work and just want the dog to go out and do its business. And we have to insist upon it no matter which or whose door the dog is going out.
In the above example, you can see where consistency is an absolute necessity in getting the behavior we want out of the dog. My next article will discuss how consistency can actually work against us in certain situations and lead to behaviors we don’t want.
As always your comments and thoughts are welcome.