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.

Boredom Breeds Bad Behavior

Dogs may love routine, but they don’t love boredom. If a dog isn’t getting sufficient mental and physical exercise each day, he may become depressed. The dog’s eating or sleeping habits may change, which can lead to house training lapses or what might appear to be lethargy. It’s really important, of course, not to ascribe these things to boredom without getting a veterinarian to examine the dog, but do consider it if there’s been a recent change, such as a move, new job, new relationship, etc. that has made you less available to your dog as a reliable companion or play mate.

Another consequence of boredom is a dog who dreams up his own “jobs” to entertain himself. These can include barking, whining, digging up your flower garden, chewing shoes, or shredding pillows, and even moving furniture about. The possibilities are virtually limitless.

Who, me?
Who, me?

So, what can we do to prevent boredom for our dogs when life gets in the way? One way is to make the time we do spend with them productively stimulating. For example, let’s say you have to spend more time at your desk working or studying. Instead of ignoring your dog, he could be using his senses and his brain lying at your feet with a snuffle mat. In fact, one of the best ways to keep a dog entertained is by using interactive toys. Make sure to supervise when your dog is playing. But know that these brain-stimulating activities are often giving your dog much more bang for the buck than a ten mile walk.

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.

Puppies – The Importance of an Early Start

There are a few predictors of aggression in adult dogs that we can easily attempt to prevent in puppyhood. These are resistance to being handled or submitting to husbandry procedures such as ear cleaning, nail clipping, or brushing and combing; guarding of resources such as food, toys, space, resting spots, or the owner; and fear of novel stimuli such as children, loud trucks, men with beards, etc.

When puppies are between age 8-17 weeks of age, the time is ripe for introducing them gently to the things they will be expected to tolerate when they are adults. This window does correspond with a stage when puppies are also at risk for diseases to which they haven’t yet been vaccinated against or built immunity to. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom now, according to veterinary behavior experts, is that we must still provide these early socializing experiences. The Pet Professional Guild has made things easier for pet owners to get started with their puppy education series of resources. People can also find a puppy class by searching their dog trainer directory.

Never Scare a Puppy
Never Scare a Puppy

A well run puppy class is worth its weight in gold. Puppies will be given opportunities to play off leash with compatible puppies, but a good instructor will help insure that pups aren’t frightened.

Owners are confronted with a wide array of puppy books, but there’s one that stands above the rest because of its attention to the puppy’s perspective, and that’s “Life Skills for Puppies” by Helen Zulch and Professor Daniel Mills.

Many trainers have this one on their bookshelves with good reason. The anti-guarding protocols developed by Jean Donaldson in “Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs” are useful in curbing a dog that’s already guarding, but is even more useful as an insurance policy to prevent puppies from becoming guarders. Misguided owners often create guarding when they try various ill-advised techniques, such as pulling forbidden items out of puppy’s mouth, or taking the food bowl away repeatedly. This book will help avoid those errors and create a dog that willingly allows humans to approach his “stuff.”

Teaching puppies to like necessary procedures is so important as well. Here’s Kelly Shutt Cottrell using a classical conditioning technique to help her foster dog learn to enjoy getting his nails trimmed: Nail Trim Video.

I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the information and hints you’ll find on our page. Please share it with friends, family, and pet professionals alike. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, too.

More to come!