A Paycheck Not a Bribe

It’s hard to understand the almost pathological reluctance some people have to using food in dog training, when we have decades of research telling us that it is incredibly effective when done correctly. Much the same way that people would not expect to be paid before the completion of a job, we “cookie pushers” expect our dogs to perform a desired behavior before the food is forthcoming. In that way, we are reinforcing, rather than cueing a particular behavior with food. When food becomes a cue, the dog doesn’t do the behavior without seeing the cue. Hence the common beginner trainer lament, “He only comes when I have cookies.” But the dog that perceives food as a reinforcement will perform a behavior on a verbal or hand signal cue, hoping for the eventual reinforcement, which if the training has progressed correctly, isn’t always given after each and every behavior. Over time, we use variable rates of reinforcement versus continuous reinforcement to keep the dog’s motivation to perform strong.

There are some terrific resources online to help you understand the benefits of training with a paycheck (the paycheck can be food, toys, a game, but should be something the dog is interested in, versus something you;d prefer to use). Our friends at 4PawsUniversity have a page on training dogs with food that dispels some common myths. The Pet Professional Guild’s handout on the use of food is very useful in understanding the process, too. The most important reason, however, for using motivational training methods is that it saves your dog from living a life where “mistakes” are “corrected” (and keep in mind the dog is just being a dog), versus a lifetime of learning new things and gaining pleasant consequences from YOU. What could be better than to have your dog be unafraid in your presence and seeking your approval, rather than being just “obedient” and wishing you were nicer sometimes?

Roo, owned by trainer Jamie Popper, a dog that was trained using clicker training, with food and toys as motivators, is shown practicing a dumbbell retrieve. Why would anyone want to train using the very old-fashioned “ear pinch” method after seeing that? Plus, a dog that is joyfully retrieving in this way can easily be shaped to a more precise retrieve for competition purposes without dampening his enthusiasm, just as the late Dr. Yin shaped her dog to a more precise behavior of putting two paws in a box in this video.

The possibilities for fun with your dog are endless when they’ve been exposed to a learn to earn strategy! Training by using successive approximations can result in some very cool tricks, as well as a way for your dog to get some mental and physical exercise on those rainy or snowy days when you just don’t want to take a long walk.

At home, you can use your dog’s dinner to train with. Or you can use some healthy treats or real meat, depending on how distracting the environment in which you are training is. Just don’t be afraid to use food and don’t be stingy! Just learn to use good timing, proper mechanics, and go forth and train with joy. #usefood

Sioux gets a liver treat for correct behavior.
Sioux gets a liver treat for correct behavior.

What’s in a Name?

Dogs probably have no concept of “name” meaning the same thing as it does to humans – either as an identifier for an individual, or a cue to which they should respond. But, they certainly have the ability to learn to react to, and make associations with, the sound of the name.

Humans tend to overuse the dog’s name, and not train the dog what to do when he hears it. Overuse actually increases the likelihood the dog will ignore his name, especially if nothing good happens when he does pay attention. Each time you say the name without a pleasant consequence for the dog, an extinction trial occurs. Here’s how extinction is defined on Wikipedia: “When operant behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring.” The same is true In classical conditioning: “When a conditioned stimulus is presented alone, so that it no longer predicts the coming of the unconditioned stimulus, conditioned responding gradually stops.” So, if you call your dog “Darling” or “Hound Boy” (yup, one of my dogs is an 80 lb. dog for whom Darling might not exactly fit as an AKA) when you’re lounging on the couch, you won’t be contributing to the real name becoming just so much background noise.

I think our dogs should understand that when they hear us say their name they should look at us. Getting a dog’s attention quickly makes training him to do other things a lot easier, too. You want your dog to turn his head toward you automatically when you speak his name. Playing the name game is a crucial first step.

I heard my name! I'm watching to see what's next.
I heard my name! I’m watching to see what’s next.

Reinforcement should not be stingy!!! Dogs repeat behavior that earns them a good paycheck. For most dogs, that means food and lots of it – but, in the right order, AFTER the completion of a behavior. It’s important to understand the proper use of food in dog training. Some dogs prefer toys or a short game of tug, but most are foodies, and the number of dogs that truly prefer praise or a head pat over food is so miniscule as to be insignificant. Getting good stuff right after responding to his name will help insure that your dog always responds to his name.

Sadly, many dogs come to dislike their names, generally because they often hear it spoken harshly when a human is disappointed to see that they’ve committed some “crime” such as soiling the rug or tipping over the trash. One way to avoid poisoning the dog’s name in this way is to teach the dog a noise that will function as a positive interrupter. If you’ve adopted a shelter dog or a dog from a rescue group, and you don’t know the dog’s history, you can simply teach a new name, one that you can be sure won’y have any of those negative associations.