The ISC Blog

Training your Dog with Science

Dana-Simmons-headshotBy Dana Simmons

 

 

Dogs and their human family members have always shared a special bond. It’s no mystery to a dog owner where the phrase “man’s best friend” came from. While it’s tough to know exactly what your pet is thinking, it is possible to train them and communicate with them to foster a loving relationship. Lynn Meador is an expert dog trainer who works for Constant Companion Dog Training. Lynn’s goal is to work with dogs and their human family members to teach the two species how to communicate with each other and cohabitate in a supportive, loving manner. Lynn teaches basic obedience commands and solves problem behaviors by carrying out private-in-home training sessions. The bond between humans and their four-legged friends is based deeply in science.  For example, when we train our dogs, we use a combination of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.  Even before training comes into play, humans have created many breeds of dogs – that are all the same species – through artificial selection.  We interviewed Lynn to learn more about the science behind her work with dogs and their families.

Where do you work, and what do you do?
I work at Constant Companion Dog Training.  I work with dogs and their owners to teach basic obedience commands and find solutions for problem behaviors. My field of study has included canines, dog obedience training, and animal behavior.  My work involves observing and participating in hands-on-training, and my typical workday involves private-in-home training.  I work with dogs and teach their owners the techniques and methods of basic obedience commands.

What life experiences influenced you to pursue this path of work? What do you enjoy most about your job?
My love for dogs, along with the desire to live in harmony with “man’s best friend”, influenced me to pursue this path of work. I enjoy the dogs and working with people who wish to have a well-behaved dog. Establishing leadership and training builds a bond of trust and love.  It is a rewarding experience for the dogs, their owners, and me. The path that led me to where I am now was a lifetime connection and respect for animals.  Animals have always been a part of my life, and I seem to share a special communication with them.  We are all part of this universe, and it is a benefit to us to have a kinship with all life.  I have always found comfort, joy, and peace when with animals.

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What is the best way to communicate with your pet?
There are many ways to communicate with your pet.  We use verbal cues, hand signals, and body language.  Using our eyes, facial expressions, and genuine feelings are all useful signals in animal communication.  We can connect with our pets on an emotional level.  Animals and pets read our energy, whether it is positive and negative.

Is training a pet more about training the pet, the human family members, or both?
Training is both training the pet, and coaching the human members of the family.  We teach leadership with their dog based on trust, respect, and love. We emphasize teaching why positive reinforcement methods have proven to be effective and successful.

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Maddie, a beagle, is one of Lynn’s students.

Can you comment on why the bond between a person and his/her pet is so special?
The deep bond that we share with our pets comes from mutual trust, respect, and love.
They give us unconditional love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  They are there for us.  They enrich our lives.  Research has shown that there are many health benefits from having a pet.  Pets reduce stress, lower blood pressure, lower the risk of heart attacks, provide us with exercise when we walk them, and provide us with companionship.  Pet owners also live longer lives. Click here to read more about specific health benefits of having a pet.

Do you find that some breeds are more difficult to train than others? Why is this so? How do you overcome these challenges?
Some breeds may be more difficult to train due to their genetic make up or what they were bred to do.  Every breed needs certain characteristics in order to do its job.  (Example: terriers need to be fearless and have a strong prey drive.)  Training measures a dog’s ability to learn and obey commands.  It involves a dog’s temperament, intelligence, & sociability. Fulfilling your breed’s needs with structure, early training, exercise and mental stimulation will help to overcome challenges in training.

What kinds of learning techniques do you use to train dogs?
Positive reinforcement, reward based training is the method I prefer.  Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding an animal for a particular behavior. By rewarding this behavior, the animal is more likely to perform that behavior in the future. This method encourages mutual trust and cooperation, and has been proven to help maintain a positive relationship (as opposed to force and intimidation).  With the use of food rewards, play, toys, and verbal praise, training becomes enjoyable for the dog and owner.

Editor’s Note: Training techniques for dogs include both classical and operant conditioning.  Classical conditioning, or “Pavlovian learning” involves pairing a particular stimulus with a reward, and this often occurs spontaneously.  Operant conditioning, or “reinforcement learning,” involves reinforcing a particular behavior using a reward.  Teaching dogs to perform behaviors on command uses a combination of classical and operant conditioning.  For example, when you are teaching a dog to sit, you will say “sit!” and if the dog sits, you will give him or her a treat.  The treat is reinforcing the behavior of sitting (operant conditioning), but the dog is also associating sitting with  your command (classical conditioning).  In the end, when your dog hears “sit!” he or she remembers that sitting leads to a treat, so he or she will sit down.

How are service animals trained? (Therapy dogs, Seeing-eye dogs, the Royal Dutch Airlines dog, etc.)
Every day service dogs help people with daily activities and to be able to function independently.  The puppies are evaluated and selected for specific requirements.  They first go to “puppy raisers” and then go to professional, certified trainers.  They train for obedience commands, performing tasks, and are distraction-trained for public access.  After leaving their “puppy raiser”, it typically takes 18-24 months to fully train a service dog.  Read more about how some dogs can “sense” impending dangers for their human masters here.

Can you comment on the health of pure breeds vs. mixed breed dogs?
Both purebreds & mixed breeds have their own advantages.  Purebreds conform to a specific standard, meaning that you know what general physical and behavioral characteristics to expect ahead of time.  However, purebreds are prone to genetic defects.  Mixed breeds are less prone to genetic defects, but you do not have a guarantee as to what the adult dog will look like or how they will act.  That said, both purebreds and mixed breeds make great companions.

Editors’ Note: Did you know that all dogs are part of the same genus and species? The scientific name for a dog is Canis familiaris. The different dog breeds we have come to know and love were created by humans over many generations of breeding dogs. Selectively breeding dogs to emphasize or remove certain traits resulted in all the different breeds we have today. This selective breeding, or “artificial selection” is an example of human-driven evolution.

How can you build trust with your pet?
You build trust with your dog by being a calm, reliable, confident, and kind leader.  Training should be “firm, fair, and fun”.  This was the 3 F’s training method by Barbara Woodhouse, a British dog trainer in the 1980’s.

Is it true that a dog is happy when they lick their nose?
Nose licking in dogs is a form of canine communication.  It is a sign that the dog is calming himself.  It may also happen if the nose is dirty or has food on it.

Many people wonder what their dogs are thinking about. Any ideas?
Scientists are researching canine cognitive functions and studying the dog’s brain with functional MRIs.  Dogs are unique.  Scientists have found that the canine and human brains are made up of the same basic structures and function in the same way.  By observing our dog’s body language, facial expressions, and behaviors, we attribute thoughts to them.

Editors’ Note: The Canine Cognition Center at Yale University has several research projects aimed at figuring out what our pooches are thinking, and how they think. 

Why do dogs spend so much time sniffing things?
Dogs sniff to identify things.  Dogs can identify smells 1,000 times better than humans.  Smell is a dog’s primary sense. For more information on your dog’s superior nose, click here.

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Editors’ Note: According to Valerie Trumps at pets360.com, dogs have about 300 million smell receptors, while cats only have 80 million, and humans have a mere 5 million. Dogs’ superior sense of smell makes them excellent security workers for sniffing and locating illegal substances. Some dogs also work at airport customs offices to sniff luggage and make sure no fruit, or other prohibited foods, cross international borders. After the terror attacks on 9/11, rescue dogs were called to help locate people buried in the World Trade Center buildings.

What are typical healthy/unhealthy social behaviors to look for in dog-dog interactions?
In determining healthy/unhealthy social behaviors in dog-dog interactions we watch for dogs to exhibit certain behaviors and body language.  This tells us if the dogs are comfortable with another dog or situation or if they are feeling stressed or threatened.  There are 30 plus signals dogs use to communicate with one another.  In being able to recognize these signals we can avoid conflict with other dogs, & identify situations that may be stressful or threatening to our dogs.

Do you have a favorite author in your field?
A favorite author is Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.  I have learned so much from her books, seminars, & videos.  Her training methods of positive reinforcement have influenced my work as a dog trainer and dog owner.  She discusses how dog’s emotions & feelings are reflected by facial expressions & body language.  She shares personal experiences of her own dogs, & talks of the strong emotional attachment we have with the dogs we love.

 

Interview by Dana Simmons, Co-Editor for the ISC’s blog.  Dana is working toward her Ph.D. in Neurobiology at The University of Chicago, where she studies autism and the cerebellum, and explores science through the lens of art.  Dana’s beloved beagle, Maddie, was trained by Lynn Meador, and is pictured as the featured image for this interview.  Follow Maddie on Instagram @maddiebeagz.

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