Understanding Consistency to Get the Most Out of Training Your Dog

Want to Share this story?

There are many things you can do to make training easier. The Inquisitive Canine Doggy Blog has already covered several strategies including:

A current trend that runs through each of these posts is the concept of consistency. Consistency is an important facet of training that is key to success when teaching your inquisitive canine a new skill, mastering an existing one, or even just peacefully coexisting together. 

Inquisitive Canine LJ Consistency

Setting and Sticking to Clear Guidelines

For our purposes, consistency has a few different aspects. First, it means setting and sticking to clear guidelines that even your dog can understand. 

When you work on training, make sure you’re always keeping in mind how you want the behavior to look. If “leave it” for you means “back away from the item and then sit and stay until I am next to you,” that’s how you should train your dog to respond to that cue. If they are expected to sit at the door and wait to be released before you let them out to start an adventure, make sure that happens. (If they break before the release cue, bring them back inside to try again.) 

Consistency in training also means that each individual person uses the same cue for a given behavior, and that they don’t use one cue for more than one behavior. Different people can give different cues, similar to speaking multiple languages; it’s just that people need to teach each cue separately and then practice so the dog learns that multiple words can mean the same thing.  If your partner uses “down,” and you want to use “get off the couch,” that’s fine, but take the time to teach the dog that the behavior is the same whenever either word is spoken. (This goes the same for hand signals as well.) What might be confusing is if you use “down” to mean lie down, but also to mean “off the couch.” Your dog may eventually learn from context which is which, but you’re definitely making it harder for you both. We have found that being consistent in cues can make life easier for everyone. 

Training the Humans

After you have a clear sense in your own mind of what you want your dog to do in what circumstances, the next key to bringing consistency to your dog training is making sure everyone interacting with your dog is following these guidelines. 

If your pup is allowed to jump up on you when you get home, but not strangers or other family members, that could be confusing. Dogs can discriminate, which in this case, is a good thing — meaning, some people they can jump up on and others it’s a no-no. But, it’s easiest to keep things simple. So, if you want “no jumping” (on certain people) to be the rule, it has to consistently mean no jumping on those individuals. Keep in mind, if Fido gets attention when he jumps on people, he is being rewarded for jumping, and he will jump more! 

However, if you do want your dog to jump on you or others, in specific circumstances, this is an easy behavior to put on cue, and it can even serve as a real-life reward, instead of a treat. In this case, the consistency will be maintained because you’ll only allow jumping when you’ve cued it, not at other times. (This is similar to using pulling as a reward during leash walking adventures.) 

If there are people in your life who have trouble following the house rules, it can be tricky. If you feel very strongly about a rule, and there’s someone who is undermining it, your first tactic should be to explain that your dog is in training and ask them for assistance. Tell them clearly how they will help. You might say, “Please only pet Fido when he is sitting, lying down or has four paws on the floor. Back away if he jumps up, and return when he’s back to four on the floor.” Positive reinforcement is not just for dogs after all, so be sure to thank them profusely when they help keep your training consistent! 

If the person really doesn’t want to help, and still won’t help you keep things consistent for your pupper, you may need to deny them access to your dog. And it may help to explain to them that you’re doing this because they are thwarting your efforts to be consistent. Sound harsh? It is, and punishment like this should always be a last resort, but it may help bring them around to your way of thinking, which is kind of the point! 

Setting Your Inquisitive Canine Up for Success

Now that the humans know what the rules are, the next step is to make them clear to your dog. There are two aspects to that: training your inquisitive canine and managing the environment to set them up for success. We’ve talked about various aspects of training in previous posts (see Resources), so here we will focus on that second piece. 

What does managing the environment entail? Among other things, it means not giving your dog the chance to make the wrong choice and get rewarded for it. So, if you’re working on your recall, and you call your dog while they’re wallowing in a huge mud pit at the dog park (assuming you’ve never worked on such a delicious distraction before), the chances of success are pretty poor. Moreover, if your dog ignores that cue and continues to wallow, they’re actually being rewarded for not coming to you – the very opposite of what you want. In this case, management would include working on recall in a low distraction area first, possibly using a long leash (at least initially), so that you are able to make sure the dog is successful. 

Cleaning up the kitchen counters so your dog can’t access the food there is another obvious management strategy in the war on counter-surfing. Yes, it would be great if dogs understood that the items on the counter are forbidden, and theirs is in the pantry and/or fridge, but they are scavengers by heritage, and that is a lot to expect of them. 

Management is just setting your dog up so that the incorrect choice is impossible to make. This is a big part of consistency, because you never want your dog to be rewarded for making the wrong choice – that’s inconsistent and will create confusion for your dog. 

Will I Be Rewarding My Dog for Each Good Behavior Forever?

Yes and no!  You should always notice and acknowledge when your dog makes a good choice, via a kind word, a pat on the head, or another reward. But that doesn’t mean you will be delivering treats for every correct behavior every time for the rest of your dog’s life. 

The one area where you will eventually move toward intentional inconsistency is the delivery of food reinforcement. Dogs (all learners, in fact) exhibit the strongest behaviors when they are “variably reinforced,” which is just a fancy way of saying “not every time and not predictably.” As your dog becomes fluent in a behavior in a broad array of circumstances, you can start only rewarding the very best of that behavior: the fastest sits, for example. 

However- never set your dog up for a situation where they are sometimes being rewarded and sometimes being punished for a behavior! This means that you can’t call your dog to come to you and deliver some chicken on Sunday, but then call them and take them out of the fun to put them right into their crate on Monday. That is not consistent. It will leave your dog wondering if today is a chicken day or a fun-ending day, and that will interfere with, and possibly even weaken, the behaviors you’re working so hard to reinforce. 

To sum up, you can make training your dog a breeze if you have a clear sense in your own mind of what you want your dog to do, manage the environment carefully, reward strategically, and communicate your training plans clearly and consistently to the pets and the people involved.

Here’s to consistently unleashing adventures and harnessing fun with your inquisitive canine! 

Resources:

Step-by-step instructions to teach dogs the skills mentioned in this post:

Leave it

Sit and Stay

Polite Greetings

Loose Leash Walking

Come when called