Three keys to having a well-trained dog

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 1/26/14
By: Gail T. Fisher

A dog trainer friend of mine recently wrote me that he had returned to classes with his young dog. He sheepishly confessed (or as sheepishly as an email can convey) that despite not having practiced much with her, she was doing very well, and was the most responsive dog in her Level 2 (intermediate) class. I am having a similar experience with Larry, our seven-month-old Chinook. I’m not saying that Larry is the best adolescent in his class (I suspect each of my fellow students would claim that moniker), but I think he is generally more responsive than his classmates.

My friend’s “confession” got me thinking about why our dogs are doing as well as they are despite our lack of regular attention to their training. I’m certainly not focusing on our homework lessons with Larry as frequently as my Instructors and I ask our students to put in each week. It could, of course, be that my friend and I are just such brilliant trainers that our dogs learn by osmosis, and don’t require regular practice—but that’s as ridiculous and fallacious as it sounds. And as I’ve written previously, Larry’s frequently out-of-control adolescent behavior has increased my humility about my training skills. So what could it be, I wondered?

As I thought about my regular interactions with my leggy, awkward (but very handsome!) teenager, it occurred to me that there are three things that likely make the most difference between our students’ progress with their dogs and a trainer’s attention to their dog’s learning. We try to impart these lessons to our students, but I’m thinking that we need to emphasize and explain them better. The three things are:

• Focus on high-value rewards (not just food treats).
• If the dog is awake, the dog is learning.
• Be consistent.

Larry finds a number of things highly reinforcing, providing a range of things that can reward his good behavior. As most dogs, Larry is motivated by food treats; however, there’s a hierarchy within this category that is important recognize. Larry likes vegetables, but would he be responsive to me in class if I gave him a piece of broccoli or carrot when the dog next to him is rewarded with hotdogs? Most dogs happily eat their dry kibble dog food, but it’s unlikely that kibble would be a high-value reward for coming away from play with other dogs, or chasing a squirrel, or simply watching something interesting. After all, he gets that food all the time. There’s nothing special about it.

Food isn’t the only thing that I use for reinforcements, and this is likely an area owners can pay more attention to. I use things that Larry loves as rewards for him—such as going out in the yard, and playing with us with his toys—especially tug o’war and retrieving. These activities provide regular opportunities for me to affect and reward his behavior. I don’t think of this as “training”—at least not in the formal sense—but it relates to my second point: If the dog is awake, the dog is learning.

I use the regular interactions with Larry to let him know that I like (or don’t like) his behavior. I also use these opportunities to ask him to perform a behavior that he knows. For example, when he goes to the door and asks to go out, I may ask him to “sit.” The moment he sits, I mark the behavior with “yes” or “good,” and open the door. I’ve rewarded his response with the freedom to go out in the yard—no food needed. I ask him to “stay” when I put his food dish down—the release to eat is his reward. I ask him to “lie down” when I’m putting on my jeans (so he doesn’t try to play tug with the legs), and pet him as his reward when I release him. There are numerous times during the day that I will give him a cue for a behavior he knows, and reward him with something other than food when he responds.

And finally, consistency. We stress this, but I’m not sure we fully explain what consistency consists of. For example, if I ask Larry to “sit” and he doesn’t, or if he lies down rather than sitting, I don’t simply ignore his error—ever! If he lies down, I move him and ask him to “sit” again. If he ignores me and he’s waiting at the door for me to open it, I will outwait him or give the “sit” cue again. If I ask him to “stay” and he moves before I release him, I won’t give him access to what he wants. I ask him to stay again, and again, and again, if necessary, until he’s successfully done it, and then release him for a reward. In other words, if I know he knows something, I won’t allow him—as an increasingly brainless or testing teenager—to ignore me. Doing so would send the message that you can ignore me. That’s not something I want Larry (or any dog) to learn. Sometimes this can be extremely frustrating—and I know my fellow students of adolescents are feeling this same pain.

The good news is that adolescence is just a stage, and if we pay attention to these three things: consistency, good rewards, and not letting a “teachable moment” pass, our dogs will come out the other side with the good behavior we’re working so hard to achieve.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2014. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.