Steve Austin

Our second webinar in early May was with Steve Austin. He is another fantastic Australian dog trainer who works training detector dogs for all sorts of things such as conservation work, detection of leaking water pipes, effluent leaks, diseases in bee hives, drugs and explosives detection in Australia as well as overseas.

His presentations are highly entertaining and he comes across as down to earth with an Aussie sense of humour. He has a huge list of qualifications but as he says, he lets his dogs do the talking.

He is continually amazed at how well his dog’s nose works. His dogs are able to easily find their target odours deep underground as well as the fact that it is possible to add more odours to the dog’s repertoire. It was thought a dog could be trained to find 5 or so odours, but now he has found dogs can be trained to find up to 15-20 different odours.

The art form and the theory of training the dog for detection is the same as any dog training involving operant conditioning, involving positive reinforcement and negative punishment.

Dogs working in the field may involve encounters with dangers or with other wild animals.

Therefore training must take into account what they will be working with in the field, in real life. So don’t just train in the one place or in your own yard. Get your dog used to the sounds, smells, sights of things they will encounter when working or competing.

Steve has a lot of work involving the protection of wild animals. He suggested that we as dog owners should Introduce other species to their dog early in their life.

When training, if your dog makes a mistake, just withhold the reward (i.e. use negative punishment). This way your dog will never be afraid to make a mistake, and will be willing to have a go. Your dog will then see correct behaviour as even more valuable as it will be highly rewarded. Mistakes are ignored and correct behaviour is highly rewarded.

Use mistakes as a benefit to your dog. If you use negative punishment, your dog won’t get his reward, and if you select the right reward for your dog, it makes the negative punishment even more effective.

Positive punishment is not used as it takes the drive and the enthusiasm away from the dog.

To entrench a behaviour clearly in a dogs mind, the finds/rewards need to be random. It could be after a few seconds, then after an hour, or after 5 minutes. The dog never knows when the reward is coming and this makes the dog push harder to make the find. The dog is in the jackpot/ poker machine mentality.

Q & A

  1. Operant conditioning Quadrants definitions

Reinforcement – you want the behaviour to reoccur – increases behaviour

Punishment – you don’t want the behaviour to occur- decreases the behaviour

Positive – adding

Negative – subtracting

*Positive Reinforcement. Example: ask the dog to sit, it does and you give the dog a reward. The reward has to be what the dog wants, not what you want. Some rewards will have a higher value to your dog than other rewards. e.g. cheese over kibble or the ball over a tug toy.

Negative Reinforcement – Example: put pressure on the dog to make it sit. When it does, you reward the dog by taking away the pressure.

Positive Punishment – Example: The dog jumps up at you and you give it something to stop it, eg yell at it, reprimand it. This is old school method and not used now.

*Negative punishment – Example: The dog jumps on you and you remove yourself or something the dog wants from the dog.

*Positive reinforcement and Negative punishment for the majority of the training.

  • Qualities in a working dog.

Look for a dog that wants to engage with you or what you can give it, a dog with a high reward value from you, it prefers you to other dogs.

Working line dogs compared to show lines. Look for dogs that have courage and drive and bred for physicality.

  • Food rewards

The delivery of the reward is important, but the dog always gets its reward. Deliver the reward randomly. The how and when to give rewards determines how motivated the dog will be. The reward itself is not the only answer, it’s how to keep the dog focused and get the dog to work for it.

The dog has to keep guessing when the reward is coming and can gradually increase the time the reward is given. To increase the duration, start giving the reward 1in 2 behavious, then 1 in 3 etc. increasing intervals, but the dog doesn’t know when he is going to receive it. When in intervals of 1 in 5 the dog may get it after 1 behaviour or after 4 behaviours, the dog has to keep guessing. The dog has to know if he keeps doing that behaviour he will eventually get the reward.

  • Detection Training

Older or rescue dogs can be trained. Treat them as you would an 8 week old puppy. Ie give them all the forgiveness you would a puppy.

  •  How long to work a dog

If the dog is happy and willing to work, then keep it working. It doesn’t depend on its age. The dog will tell you when it’s time to retire. Working line dogs can work for 10 years or more, although they might slow down a bit with age.

  •  Time to train a dog ready to work

If you have a dog with high reward drive, have a step by step training plan and use positive reinforcement and negative punishment, Steve can train a dog to work in the field within 13 weeks. It takes longer to select the right dog. Make the rewards fun and only train for about 60-90 seconds at a time at a time and if possible for 4-5 sessions throughout the day. Training has to be the best thing in their life, it has to be fun.

Have a good attitude to training, set your goals, and enjoy your dog. The only disability in life is a bad attitude.

  • A dog that decides it doesn’t want to work anymore.

Put the dog on holidays and let it chill for a few weeks. Keep the attention toward the dog to a minimum. Only do groom, feed and minimum exercise. Set a plan. Reassess the rewards.

First time you take the dog out, only play with it, don’t train it. Stop training before you reach the dog’s peak of the training session, before they are over trained. Stop with the dog wanting more. Ensure you don’t give too much praise for nothing. The dog learns that rewards are only for when they work.

Preference for which sex of dogs.

Steve now prefers females. Female dogs are softer & may take a little bit extra work to train but in the long run he feels females are better. De sex the females after the first season. De sex the male around 18-24 months to allow for bone, muscle and brain growth. He emphasizes it is entirely your own preference & worth you doing your own research. Follow the science and make your decision based on what will benefit your dog.

  • Dominant dogs

Most likely not to be a dominant dog, the dog is more likely to be fearful.

Use classical conditioning. If a dog shows aggression towards another dog. A dominant dog won’t scare the other dog away, it wants the other dog to come closer so it can fight it. A fearful dog wants to scare the other dog away.

Find the threshold of the dog before it reacts. Pair the reward with the experience. If a dog is fearful of something, then find the distance the dog is under its threshold, and reward it. Use classical conditioning (Pavlov training). You can use all his daily food allowance for this exercise, work on changing his emotions. Don’t correct him. This may take 20-30 repetitions. When he receives all his food on this exercise, his attitude can change.

  • Fearful dogs

Sometimes it is difficult to determine what the dog is fearful of. The object may trigger the fear. It could be the sight, the scent, or have been hurt by it.

To overcome the fear, desensitize the dog against the trigger using classic conditioning. Have him at a distance where he is under the threshold. Need to fix his emotions first. Step back allow to calm down first. Also check the dog is physically and mentally healthy.

11           Resource guarding

Put 2 bowls out. Have the dog on lead. Drop a bit of food into its bowl, then take the dog to the other bowl, and drop food in. You become the instigator of giving food, not taking things away. Don’t correct as this behaviour is an emotional problem. The dog needs more confidence.

Train tricks, or any type of sport to give the dog more confidence. The more robust mentally and physically your dog is, the happier the dog is. Allow them to have small steps of success to grow their confidence.

12           Become a detection dog handler

Have an obedience title like UDX- show you have the ability to train your own dog.

A course such as Austin Education specializing in Canine Training and Behaviour