Monday, 10 December 2018
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Dog training requires swift reinforcement

One-point-five seconds. If you remember anything from this column, remember that number. I shall explain.

But first, two dog trainers and how they got to where they are, and the lessons they would like to pass on.

The first trainer is Cole Bodelson, who grew up in Santa Fe and is just starting a career as a dog trainer.

The second trainer is Emily Burlingame, who is the senior training and behavior specialist at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society.

They both have something in common: a passion for working with animals.

In high school, Bodelson was worried that he would get stuck with a career he hated. Then he discovered his love of dogs. After high school, he searched for and found the Tom Rose School for Professional Dog Trainers in High Ridge, Mo. He enrolled and it was, Bodelson said, the best decision of his life.

Burlingame grew up obsessed with the 1967 movie Dr. Doolittle with Rex Harrison. Her goal as a kid was to learn, like Doolittle, how to talk to animals. Training them was the closest she could get to communicating with them. She started training animals when she was 12 (dogs, cats, chickens and horses) and went to the University of California, Davis, majoring in animal behavior and psychology. She has been a professional trainer for over 14 years.

Although I share Bodelson and Burlingame’s passion about dogs, I somehow missed the training part. Instead of having well-trained and obedient dogs, our home is often dog bedlam, as our friends and neighbors will confirm. So anytime I can get two talented trainers on the phone and glean some knowledge, I am all ears.

I asked Bodelson and Burlingame what the key lessons are that they’ve learned about training dogs.

Here they are:

Dogs are are not “little people.” Their brains are distinctive. They sense the world differently than us. They’re red-and-green colorblind. They sense the world principally through smell. They don’t experience “guilt.” That expression that you see when you arrive home and the dog has torn wallpaper off the wall (a personal experience) isn’t guilt, it’s cowering because you’re mad, but they have no clue as to why you’re mad.

• Dogs are individuals. There is serious agreement about that in our household. Our dog Tank will do anything for food. Nellie is more “meh” and tends to do whatever she wants no matter the treats being offered. Maisie, our rescue dog, cowers if you approach her too quickly. They are each unique. And they each need to be trained differently.

• About the 1.5 seconds. (1.3 seconds if we want to be precise). Admittedly, I now obsess about this.

Bodelson told me that when you are training a dog or reinforcing any kind of behavior, the time between the behavior and the consequence needs to be within 1.5 seconds. Example: When I call Tank and he actually comes to me, I can’t then go to the counter and get a treat and then come back and give it to him. The moment (the

1.5 seconds) has been lost. Tank probably just thinks — I have no idea what he thinks — but he doesn’t connect the command to the consequence. If you wonder why trainers always carry a fanny pack full of treats, this is why: They know that reinforcement has to be immediate for learning to take place.

The reason for this is that the frontal cortex in a dog’s brain is approximately 7 percent of the brain volume. An adult human’s frontal cortex is around 30 percent.

This part of the brain is used for planning (the future) and memory (the past). Think about it this way; dogs, like teenagers, live solely in the present and the 1.5-second rule might be a good practice for managing kids. So be quick with those treats!

For more writings by Hersch Wilson on dogs, firefighters and life go to Contact him at


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