Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The age-old complaint, "my dog only listens when I have food."

I was volunteering this past summer for a rescue organization, handling a black lab mix-looking puppy who couldn't have been more than three months old.  I was having a great time getting her to do a few basic skills for potential adopters.  She clearly hadn't had any training before, and the woman who worked at the kennel where she was being boarded confirmed this.  When I told her that Mandy (the puppy) had been successfully practicing Sit, Down and Paw, she said, "Yeah, well, of course she'll do that for treats."

Yes, Mandy would do all those things for treats.  And lucky for us that she would, because that's what makes it so easy to train her.  Why would I not use treats?  If you have poor eyesight that can be remedied with prescription glasses, why not get the glasses?  Yes, you'll have to wear them on your nose, and they  might be cumbersome at times.  But wouldn't you rather that than not be able to see?  I would rather have to reinforce my dog's behavior with treats every once in a while than have to either intimidate them into compliance or just have an ill-behaved dog.

But I am, in fact, being kind of unfair to the kennel woman.  We aren't referring to the same practice when we talk about using food in dog training.  Debby McMullen, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, explains that food can be used in dog training in three ways: as a bribe, a lure, or a reward.  The woman from the kennel was deploring the use of food as a bribe.  I am endorsing the use of food as a lure or a reward.  And it's true - she's right that using food as a bribe will likely teach your dog not to listen to you unless he sees the food in your hand.  And that's not good.

So in conclusion: Use food.  Use it sparingly to get your dog into the position you want to reward.  Then fade out the food by faking out your dog.  Use the same hand motions but without food in your hand as a lure.  Your dog will perform the same behavior, thinking you have food - so start to make it clearer and clearer that you have no food visible on your person as you cue him to the behavior.  He will realize that not seeing food does not mean that you won't produce it out of thin air if he just does what you ask.  That food magically appearing out of thin air is the reward.  Reduce the frequency of the reward, but keep it present so the behavior remains strong.  That's a quick description of how to correctly use food.  Don't bribe your dog, and you won't teach him to expect that.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The easiest way to change your dog's behavior EVER.

As a trainer, sometimes I feel like I could write pages and pages of recommendations for my clients about what I think they should do with their dogs.  First of all, I don't have the time for that.  Second of all, I may think I know best, but ultimately, their relationship and lifestyle they share with their dog is their own.  What I think interpret as a priority may not be, and what I think is doable on a daily basis may be way out of the question in reality.  So, shocker of all shockers, I don't write a mini-novel for each client, fortunately for them.  I have to edit myself.  And when I do that well, the results are that much more positive.

I just watched a webinar by certified applied animal behaviorist Suzanne Hetts.  One of the things she recommended was so dang simple yet brilliant.  A prescription for success in one short recommendation that basically empowers dog owners to create their own programs that fit their lives perfectly.  Here it is:

Pick three behaviors that your dog already performs that you like.  Reward your dog for those behaviors ten times a day.  

Basically, she's just put all us professionals out of business if people learn how to really harness this advice.  It addresses so many rules of thumb that we hold so sacred, like:

  • Train your dog to DO things, not to NOT DO things.  Think in terms of what you do want your dog to do instead of what you want him to not do.  It's almost impossible to train the absence of a behavior without traumatizing your dog into avoiding a whole group of behaviors, including trusting you.
  • Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated
  • Communicate with your dog.  Observe what she is doing and tell her what you think of it by giving clear feedback - effectively in the form of anything she likes, like food, play, etc.

So make your own training curriculum, and switch it up every day.  It won't take long before you're noticing a marked improvement in your dog's behavior.  This is so important and frighteningly simple, I wish every dog owner would do it.