Brian is a dog lover who's highly interested in the mental and emotional lives of dogs. He owns and trains Wally, a Coton de Tulear.
Soft Dogs Can Be A Challenge
Training a soft dog is often considered easy. While it might be easier than dealing with a strong-willed, independent dog, it's not a no-brainer situation or one where nothing can go wrong.
I hope to share useful insights about how I managed to do this as a first time owner, and some useful and interesting observations and ideas.
The Soft Dog Personality
So what is a "soft dog"?
A soft dog is one that is often considered to be lacking in confidence or shy or perhaps even fearful. While they may have some or all of those traits (Wally did/does), I consider a soft dog to be one where corrections can shake them up, putting them into appeasement mode. Soft dogs could be perfectly confident...as long as things are going right, but they make a mistake and you call them on it, a soft dog can go into straight appeasement and get stuck there.
That is where the challenge lies. Soft dogs might be more emotionally reactive or "vulnerable" as well. Perhaps the best way to describe the "soft dog" is one whose emotional needle is easy to move, especially towards avoidance/appeasement/"submissiveness" and may have a tendency to stay on the avoidance/appeasement side "too long". This may be where the appearance of shyness or fearfulness can come through because some calming signals look like the dog is scared.
I know Wally definitely needs to be brought out of appeasement mode. Before I learned how to effectively give good, clear feedback, he will shrink up and start giving calming signals and stop trying to figure out/do what it is I was asking him to do. Back then, this flustered me, which just added to the negative emotion I was projecting, pushing him further to the appeasement mode (because he thinks he's not doing it right, so he gets more demonstrative with his signals) and a vicious cycle starts.
If Wally were a "hard dog", he probably would shrug most of that off and be like "okay, you're upset, so what DO you want?" instead of "Please don't be mad, I'm sorry, I won't do anything!"
Training Tactics For Soft Dogs
Given that soft dogs tend to react to correction with more significant appeasement, correcting them tends to be a challenge. In fact, it is probably best to be more pro-active in training instead of reacting to mistakes with corrections. By this, I mean to condition the behavior you want strongly so that the chance of the dog making a mistake diminish.
But what if he does make a mistake? If possible, I like to turn to negative punishment, i.e. the withdrawal of what he wanted/could have gotten. This is easier on him and is less like to create appeasement. Where this isn't possible or safe to rely on, or doesn't get the point across (the dog is still making mistakes) then the best correction is to teach a no-reward marker.
Learning about the no-reward marker was one of those things that really opened up a new world for me and gave me a new way to approach Wally.
The No-Reward Marker Turned Things Around
Using the no-reward marker turned things around for Wally and me. I had a way to give "that's not right" feedback in a way that wouldn't crush him. I could also avoid confusing him by throwing out lots of cues and body signals, which then were often interpreted as social pressure or intimidation, clearing up the communication between us significantly.
Once that happened, our progress skyrocketed in both what we could accomplish as well as in our relationship. As odd as it might sound, it also improved his confidence because he knew what I was "saying" and what he had to do.
Knowing what to do is one of the top things on the mind of a soft dog because that keeps them "safe" and avoiding any negative or intimidating interactions. Always a positive in a relationship between human and canine in my view!
No-Reward Marker vs Correction
What's the difference between a no-reward marker and a correction? It could be said that a no-reward marker is just another kind of correction. While probably true in strict terms, I think the difference is that it acts almost as a cue because it can start another behavior chain, while also giving the dog feedback that what he did isn't going to work.
It is a bit difficult to put it in a quadrant of operant conditioning, but it might be somewhere between negative punishment, i.e., removing the opportunity of a reward as a result of his behavior, and a light form of positive punishment, since I am technically adding the stimulus (the sound that acts as the no-reward marker) to the dog's environment and the end goal is to diminish the behavior that brought out the marker in that situation.
Why I like no-reward markers is because it's a very light form of positive punishment. Done well, the dog will get the point that the behavior he's trying won't get him a reward, but at the same time not diminish any spirit/eagerness in the dog so he's still in a state of mind to give full effort and work with you.
Teaching the No-Reward Marker
For Wally and me, teaching the no-reward marker started from using a sound to interrupt his behavior, and then re-state the cue. The interrupter got him to stop the behavior, and then I gave him a behavior he could do. Then I rewarded that behavior. This causes the interrupter to have the dog look to you for the behavior he needs to do. Then when he gets rewarded, he learns the behavior he should have done instead.
Used often, he started to generalize the sound as a "stop that" type cue as the first thing in the chain is to stop what he's doing and look at me. It also brought him no reward, no click, no "good boy". no treat, just a sound to stop what he was doing (and that's a punishment because he was expecting either a reward from me or from what he wanted to do).
It is like "no" on steroids from a conditioning standpoint. A lot of times, people say "no" but don't finish the rest of the sequence. To the dog, the sound was just a random sound that startled him. This eventually will have no meaning to the dog and be like background noise, killing the potential "no" had to work as a no-reward marker and do what they wanted in the first place - be a "stop that" signal.
Difficult Behaviors Can Cause Problems
For a soft dog, success is something they seek out.
Having a soft dog attempt difficult behaviors can be problematic, even with a good establishment of feedback with the dog. Corrections and no-reward markers still mean that success hasn't been achieved, and this can sap any dog's confidence, and more quickly for a soft dog since they are already ready to run to the "I'm sorry's" when they don't get things right.
This makes finding a good point to start a new behavior something of a challenge. Starting too far back can make the dog struggle to get off to a good start, making shaping difficult. Starting too far up the chain can make the dog have a hard time understanding what he's to do. For us, starting at the beginning and going slowly helped him, but often times, I had to break down even the beginning behavior if at all possible.
Another thing that helped was teaching him a lot of simple behaviors. Not only did this help increase confidence, it gave him more things to try before getting flustered. It also gave me more ways to "hint" at what to do by calling out the beginnings of the behavior to get him going. Since I train primarily by shaping, this was crucial for us.
High Reinforcement Rate: The Counter To Challenge
When the dog is having difficulty (and remember, it's what he considers difficult that matters), one of the best ways to get morale high and keep him from slipping into appeasement or avoidance is to increase the rate of reinforcement.
A high rate of reinforcement (in other words, a lot of goodies in less time) helps the dog feel like he was having success, and we know success is what the soft dog is craving. Putting a high rate of reinforcement in your mind as the trainer also can encourage you to look for smaller steps and smaller goals towards the desired behavior. Even if it's not "formal" shaping, this helps the dog have more achievable "milestones" on the way to true completion.
High reinforcement rates also can bring a soft dog that has entered appeasement or avoidance, perhaps from the environment or his own waning confidence, back into a better frame of mind and restore his eagerness to put forth effort and raise his spirits. That alone could have the dog re-double his efforts to attempt the difficult task at hand.
Lastly, Make Latent Learning Work For You, Not Against You
The final thing I wanted to touch on was latent learning. This is an important part of training in any case, but with a soft dog, you never want to leave him in a down state.
This isn't just for feel-good and there's more than just "keep him wanting more". It's helping him dwell on a success instead of the fact that he made you mad, got it wrong, or that all his appeasement signals got you to go away and stop ranting or pressuring him, which ends up being a reward, a form of negative reinforcement (what he did cause something aversive to him to end, which increases the likelihood of that behavior in that situation). Even ending on a no-reward marker is generally not a good idea. These things might make him more likely to enter appeasement mode, which is not want you want to go for.
Instead, bring him out of the down state - even if you don't want to do any more training. Get him in a more positive state of mind. Play a game, have him do something dirt simple and give him a reward, take him for a walk so he gets to clear his head, or just give him something nice to sniff or chew. Often times, Wally would "shake off" (a calming signal to himself - "glad that's over!") and then be more upbeat. At this point, I can "safely" end interaction with him and leave him be.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.