What do Trainers mean by teaching "Optimism"? Is this really a thing?
You may have heard trainers talking about creating “optimism” in dogs through training and games. This may sound like a strange concept and you might be wondering what on earth they mean. Is this just some new fad or “airy-fairy” training idea?
Well, as a trainer and behaviour practitioner with 20 years’ experience, I believe that these trainers are on to something very important and have found a good way to describe a concept that many force free trainers have observed for years while working with dogs. Let me explain:
This past week, we worked on an exercise that was new to most of our intermediate and advanced classes: Teaching the dogs to place their muzzles inside a cone. Besides being a fun trick, it also has practical applications for helping dogs to be comfortable wearing a muzzle, if that was required at some point. What amazed me while observing the dogs during this exercise, was how easily they got the idea and how completely comfortable they were with shoving their noses deep into the cone. There was no hesitation, no shying away – really no concern about what they were being asked to do at all. In fact, the dogs kind of looked like they were thinking: “I get treats for this? What a breeze!”
The confidence with which the dogs approached this new, slightly “invasive” exercise, is to me a good example of what trainers mean by “optimism”: All 40 dogs in the various classes seemed to approach the task with the attitude that it could only result in good stuff happening. While I am not suggesting that dogs understand the concept of optimism, I do believe that when a dog acts in a manner that demonstrates a “trust” that something good will come of exploration or engagement with a person or object, they are essentially demonstrating an optimistic state of mind. I also believe that this optimistic state of mind is pleasant for the dog – they are anticipating good things and so feel “happy”.
So how do we develop optimism in dogs? Well, using positive reinforcement as a training method and avoiding the use of positive and negative punishment is a good start. Optimism in training is developed when a dog anticipates that good stuff is going to happen when they engage with the trainer and offer behaviours. If trying only ever results in good things, there is no reason not to try. This is why in training we need to set the environment up so that the dog gets to succeed and gain the reward as often as possible and why we do not add punishment if the dog does happen to get it wrong – we simply rethink our training plan and change something we are doing to help the dog get it right. The more a dog succeeds, the more optimistic and therefore enthusiastic they will be to train and work with us.
But optimism doesn’t just relate to “formal” training. It is also incredibly important to help a dog face life and everything he or she may encounter with confidence. We all know that dogs can develop phobias around noises, strange objects, different surfaces and around people, dogs and other animals. But we can actually do things to minimise the chances of this happening, by instilling optimism in our dogs through games and fun challenges. Optimism in this context translates to positive outlook as a dog encounters new and possibly unexpected things in daily life.
We can build this kind of optimism by creating challenges for puppies and even adult dogs, by introducing new stuff in a way that engaging or interacting always results in something good. So, for example, in puppy class we have a ball pit with plastic balls in it. The plastic balls are unstable when puppies step on them and they make a fairly loud noise when they are moved. We scatter treats into the ball pit and allow the puppies to choose whether they want to try to go in and get them or not. Some puppies will only look in at first, while others quickly climb in and sniff out the treats. We allow all pups to go at their own pace, but by the end of 3 or 4 weeks, it is unusual to find a pup that is not leaping into the ball pit with sheer joy. Because only good stuff happened when they chose to engage, they learned that a moving surface was not actually scary, and the noisy balls held no danger – in fact they only predicted something good (food and, in the end, fun play). This is just one example of many potentially scary obstacles and situations we set up so that puppies have the opportunity to learn they actually predict good stuff.
It is not only puppies that can benefit; We also have older rescued dogs joining us and many are timid at first and unsure of anything novel. Doing simple things like teaching them to climb on or in a box, walk through a hoop or stick their heads into something to get food massively boosts their confidence and helps them to approach novel situations with an expectation that they are likely to produce something good for them, rather than something bad.
When a puppy or dog regularly gets to experience new things turning out well, it creates optimism, which helps them to approach life with confidence. This results in less fear, less anxiety and less reactivity. Instead of panicking in a new situation, the dog has a frame of reference for having encountered something similar before and it all turning out well. Optimism therefore creates emotional stability and reduces the likelihood of reactivity.
Optimism in dogs is not a silly idea. It is in fact one of the most important things we can and should develop in our dogs.