Victoria’s Interview With Dr. Sophia Yin – Part I
I recently connected with my friend, Dr. Sophia Yin, to discuss training young dogs and her new book, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days.
Victoria: There are a lot of puppy books already out there. What made you decide to write this book?
Sophia: I wrote this book because I needed a resource that would provide my dog-owning clients. I wanted to provide them with step-by-step, photo-illustrated solutions to their most common puppy and adult dog problems. You can tell owners and then show them what to do and how to do it but they do best when they also have photo-illustrated instructions where each step is documented visually in pictures so they can see what the steps look like any time they want.
Even more important, I’ve found from the research projects I carried out on training protocols and handling procedures, that people also need to see what it looks like when they are performing the techniques incorrectly otherwise they think they are doing the right thing when in fact they are making mistakes. Overall, three factors:
- seeing photos of the training steps
- having enough training steps so that there are no gaps in the sequences, and
- seeing what can go wrong, greatly improve the rate of success.
VS: In this book, you personalize the book by focusing on the training of your fathers’ Australian Cattle Dog puppy, Lucy. How did you make that choice?
SY: Well, my dad declared one summer that he wanted a new puppy because my parents had recently lost their 13-year old Scottie to cancer. He knew exactly what he wanted—an Australian Cattle dog that looked just like his past cattle dog Rudy, and he wanted it ASAP.
Apart from the obvious concern that no matter how much the puppy looked like his old dog, it would not act like his old dog, I was concerned about how the puppy would eventually turn out. My dad has a history of raising dogs that turn out to be aggressive in some situations. Their 13-year old Scottie never showed signs because I had owned her first. But their first Boxer was an unneutered male who was aggressive to dogs and wandered the neighborhood. The second Boxer was a neutered male who was aggressive to some people. His most recent Australian Cattle dog, Rudy—who was otherwise a great dog—was fear aggressive if unfamiliar dogs got in his face. I already have a wonderful Jack Russell Terrier, Jonesy, with fear and arousal issues who keeps me on my toes, I really didn’t need to inherit an aggressive Australian Cattle dog down the road. And as you probably know, Australian Cattle Dogs can have a tendency towards aggression if not socialized appropriately.
So I decided that I would keep the puppy for a week as soon as I got her and then train her as much as possible before giving her to my dad. I knew that she could form great habits and be well on her way to being a perfect pup in just that one week if I ran her through my Learn to Earn Program and started her socialization, so I decided to document her training in pictures (and video) so that my clients as well as other dog owners could benefit from my task.
The great thing about using this puppy, Lucy as an example within the book is that I can specifically tell people how long it took for her to learn habits such as automatically sitting to go through doors, to get petted and to play fetch. The information is not just vague. It’s very specific and it gives people and idea of what can go write and the little glitches along the way.
VS: It’s called Perfect Puppy in a Week. Can you actually get a perfect puppy in a week?
SY: With the Learn to Earn program where you focus on teaching the puppy to say please by sitting for everything she wants and you are aware of your every interaction with your puppy, yes, you can form good habits in just a week. Each exercise only takes 5-10 minutes for the puppy to learn and we train the puppy that it’s fun. Probably the coolest thing for owners is that they get to see the puppy make the choice to behave in a desired way.
But what really makes the program unique is that owners learn how to make the good behaviors a habit, rather than just a trick performed for treats. It’s not just about training puppies to sit or come. It’s about training them to sit or come every time you want them to do so in all the appropriate instances. The key is to make it fun and use all of the dog’s motivators—food, petting, praise, getting the leash on, going outside—to your advantage and to make sure you don’t accidentally reward them for the unwanted behaviors. That combination is what makes the training so fast.
That being said, because readers will just be learning the exercises, and trying to teach their dog at the same time, it will take longer for them. And once the dog knows the exercises, it’s about being consistent enough to make the polite behaviors a habit. For Lucy, I didn’t expect that she’d be good for my parents until they also learned how to reward the good behaviors and make sure she didn’t get rewarded for unwanted ones. But she was pretty perfect for me, my assistants, and the visitors who visited.
VS: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about training puppies?
SY: People think you should wait until the puppy is older to start training and as a result, they spend the first weeks inadvertently rewarding unwanted behaviors or instead of controlling the environment and immediately setting up the situation for success.
For instance, puppies are really energetic and love to nip and jump. People think that because it’s a puppy these behaviors are ok, but once they start getting scratches and wounds from the nipping that they have accidentally rewarded, or when the puppy is larger and knocking people down, it can be much harder to break these habits and form new desired ones. So a behavior that could be fixed in just a few days with a puppy might take weeks or months once the puppy is older.
VS: Will starting young ruin your puppy?
SY: Back when most people were training using force-based methods, yes starting puppies young could ruin them. The puppies just learned that whatever they did, they’d get a correction that might scare them or that might hurt. So, you can imagine that dogs that were bred as working dogs would not have a high drive to hunt or do protection work if they learned as a puppy that the world was a place where humans give lots of scary or painful corrections. So these trainers would say you had to wait until the dogs was mature enough. What they meant was mature enough to handle the force-based corrections without crumbling.
This whole situation is akin to taking young children and putting him into a school program where he is mostly corrected for doing things wrong rather than being shown in a step-by-step manner how to do things right, being rewarded for good behaviors frequently. I think everyone has had some type of incident when they were young and someone told them “you’re no good at that—you’re a bad drawer, or singer, or bad at math” and those negative words at that young age have stuck with the kids for a long time. Similarly for puppies, training based on punishing unwanted behaviors rather than setting them up for success can ruin them or at minimum produce a very different dog that what you would get otherwise.
VS: How does your training differ from the correction-based training?
SY: Similar to your approach on Its Me or the Dog, science-based training is about rewarding the behaviors we want and removing the rewards for unwanted behaviors. And it really focuses on making good behavior fun so that the puppy will want to be good. Many people don’t realize this, but in order to reward only the desired behaviors the humans have to be aware of all of their interactions with the dog. For instance, if they would like their puppy to greet them politely by sitting instead of jumping on them to get them to interact or give attention, they must clearly remove their attention, when the puppy starts to jump. Generally that means, standing still and looking away. Then as soon as the puppy sits they can reward with a sequence of treats—the first for sitting and the rest for remaining seated— and later with praise and petting, once the puppy can sit for food.
It also means that during other times during the day when the dog solicits attention but may not be as excited, they also must remove their attention until the dog sits. That is, in the most exciting situations, the dog will jump, but in less exciting situations the dog may just push against the owner, or climb into the owners lap. If the humans reward the pushy attention behavior in the low excitement situations, then they dog will definitely continue to perform the pushy behavior in the high excitement situations too. Hence it may take forever for the puppy to learn to greet politely.
VS: This book really focuses on breaking the exercises down into steps and on the postures and movement of the owner.
SY: Yes. The most difficult thing for owners is to realize that dogs care what you do now what you say. They don’t understand English or other language, but they do naturally understand and read your body language. So in order to communicate clearly with dogs, we have to be aware of how we’re standing, how we deliver rewards, and how we move around the dog. For instance if you lean over the puppy to give him a treat, he’ll have a tendency to jump because it looks like you are soliciting attention. That’s why for treat delivery I focus on standing up straight and bending your knees while delivery the treat with an outstretched arm. Similarly if you hold the food reward too high, you’ll train the dog to jump to get it. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling him “no,” he’s going to pay attention more to what your body language says, “Jump up to get the treat I’m extending out to you.” So it’s important foe people to know what their body language is telling the dog so that they can up a communicate clearly.
Part II of this interview will be posted shortly... Stay tuned!
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