At dogma, our approach to training is reward based. You may have heard this referred to as positive reinforcement training. The basic concept is that dogs learn primarily through association. So this means that if you reward them for a behaviour, they will perform this behaviour more. Rewards can be anything and everything that your dog perceives as a positive. This includes food, toys, walks, getting to go through a door, your attention and affection, the opportunity to play with another dog or interact with a person, sniffing the ‘pee mail’ spot on a walk, and many more. We are in control of all of these resources, and if we use them as motivation for our dogs and make them work for all of them, training becomes an easy part of every day life.
We should have our dogs perform a skill to gain access to any reward. This can be something as simple as a sit, or something fun like shake a paw or roll over. It is a great way to practice obedience and teach overall manners and self control, while at the same time teaching our dogs that we are the queen or king of all good things. This also begins to teach them that attention on us is important to them.
People struggle with positive training for a variety of reasons and there is a lot of misinformation out there on it. In our classes and in high distraction areas, we primarily use food rewards. This is because in these environments, your dog may not be interested in your affection or just verbal praise. Praise and affection are just not as powerful when you are teaching a new skill. However, people become concerned with food as they are worried that their dogs will get fat or that they will only listen to them if they have food. The key is to use a healthy treat, and if you are concerned, then just cut back on their daily ration of food. However, we have yet to meet a dog that has been trained through treats properly and is overweight. I am sure that we have all heard someone say, “I tried treat training, but my dog will only work if I have food in my hand!” Well, our reply to this concern is that these people have a very talented dog who has mastered the skill of training humans. This dog has taught them that they only work if there is food involved. Pretty impressive. They are smart creatures!
Food rewards are a powerful tool, but we must first learn how to use them effectively. Treats should be small and soft. For a large dog, these only need to be the size of your pinky nail or smaller. They are meant to motivate and reward the dog, not fill them up. Dogs are great because they work for cheap and they work for crumbs! The reward needs to be what your dog finds motivating. At home, they may work really well for their kibble, but put them in a classroom and they may not care any more. This is because there is a lot going on. When first teaching a skill or working in a busy/new environment, have a high value reward that your dog wants. A good analogy for this would be for a die-hard sports fan (let’s say a Flames fan) is watching the last few minutes of a Stanley Cup play off game and the score is tied. You say this person’s name and they ignore you. You try to move them away from the tv for $10 and they ignore you. You try $1000 and they ignore you. But, let’s say you offer $5000 and they come. Now, for others they may come for $100 or some you may need to offer $10000! Thank goodness dogs are motivated by food and not money!
In our training, we use this food as a lure. It can work like a magnet to hold your dog’s attention and put them into position or to lead them around. Once the desired skill is there, then you can use this lure as the reward. Quick and easy! The problem begins, when we use this lure for too long, and it turns into a bribe. To avoid this, as soon as your dog offers you the skill 5-10 times, the food reward must go out of sight and never come back. And they will test you on this! NEVER bring it back out if your dog is not performing the skill. Rather wait them out and when they offer it, bring the treat out and reward. If you do not do this, your dog is on the path of training you. When you first remove the lure, you should always reward. This shows them that even if it is out of sight, the reward is still coming. As your training progresses, we will help you on removing the food reward entirely. We will always verbally reward through our ‘yes’, but the food is no longer needed.
So what about when the dog is doing something inappropriate? This is where people misunderstand positive training. We do not just sit and wait for the dog to offer something good. We do work at correcting this behaviour and it is something that should be taken seriously by any dog owner. The concern is more about how we do this. Dog owners get caught up in a whole lot of ’stop it, don’t do that, no, no, no’ with their dogs. While you may be effective in stopping a behaviour, you are not teaching your dog what to do instead. Dogs just do what works. It is our responsibility to interrupt bad behaviour and show the dog what to do instead. For example, your dog is chewing your shoe. You should say ‘no’, stop the dog from chewing the shoe and show them what to chew instead. At the same time, you should be rewarding (even just through verbal praise) and acknowledging them when they are chewing the right item.
A skilled trainer does not need to use physical punishment. They understand how dogs learn and communicate. A positive trainer is focusing on teaching the dog versus just trying to stop behaviour. This is why reward base training is so effective. The dog understands what is expected of them and loves doing it!
We are so good at ignoring our dogs when they are behaving. This is an easy habit to get into as we do not want to interrupt our dogs when they are behaving. However, rewarding appropriate behaviours is a powerful tool! You can do this by making an active effort to watch for and reward good behaviour. Examples on how to do this would be, giving a reward when your dog is looking at you while on leash, coming to you while off leash, sitting when greeting people, waiting patiently for their food, etc. Pay attention and do not ignore good behaviour!
A final note on dog training. Start rephrasing how you approach modifying behaviour and training your dog. For example, rather than asking ‘How do I stop my dog from jumping on people’, try saying ‘How can I get my dog to sit nicely when they are greeting poeple?’ When you do this, you are thinking about what to teach your dog to do rather than just stopping them. This avoids a great deal of frustration for both you and your dog and just makes the whole thing more enjoyable. Try a few of these simple techniques and learn that you can have fun in dog training!