When I tell people I’m a professional dog trainer, I always get the same response. “Gee, I wish you could do something about my dog!” It seems like every dog owner has a canine family member at home who’s making life a little less than blissfully happy for the owners.
People always assume they need me to help their situation. They somehow feel helpless to solve the problem at hand. They don’t want to spend a lot of money on classes or professional trainers, so they just do nothing.
All Dogs Need Training
What everyone needs to realize is that all dogs need training. Doing nothing doesn’t work. Left to their own devices, dogs will develop what we call “problem behaviors.” These behaviors aren’t a problem for the dog though. Your dog is just doing exactly what pleases him. The problem is, without training, what pleases the dog and what pleases the owner are totally different things.
So what can you do to keep your life with your dog happy and trouble-free?
How Dogs Make Decisions
Here’s your first important tip: Dogs base their decisions on what’s pleasing or rewarding for them.
Dogs spend each day trying to find gratification. When they hit on something that provides some kind of reward, they’ll try to repeat that behavior and reap the reward as often as possible. This is a basic law of nature and psychology. An organism with a brain will repeat actions or behaviors that get rewarded.
So, your dog hangs out all day, waiting for you to notice and reward some behavior he’s performing. He tries sitting quietly, and it goes unrewarded. He switches to another behavior, like grabbing your shoe or yapping, and bingo! That gets your attention.
Now your dog has the information he needs to make his choices. Sitting quietly, not eating shoes, doesn’t get rewarded.
Being disruptive often earns your attention. Sometimes it even ends up in a game of chase with much “cheering.” Which behavior do you think your dog will learn to prefer?
A bored dog goes to the trash can where he smells food. He raids the trash, eating anything from fish guts to dirty diapers. He thinks he’s found lost gold. You can scold all you want, but if you’ve allowed your dog to experience a positive reward by raiding the garbage and getting all of its delights, how can you ever expect him not to raid the garbage?
Dogs aren’t innately bad. They’re just performing the behaviors they’ve learned to prefer based on their experience. Your dog chooses the bad behaviors because you’ve taught him to prefer the bad behaviors with your attention.
Help Your Dog Make Good Choices
Here’s the irony of the situation. While your dog’s living his life, waiting for positive things to happen so he can decide whether his actions are productive and worth repeating, or non-productive, here you sit doing nothing to help your dog choose the good behaviors by rewarding them.
Instead, you sit at your computer or in front of your television, completely ignoring your dog. Suddenly, you hear a crash and your dog flees out the doggie door with your computer disk in his mouth (the one with the important, irreplaceable information on it). You stop ignoring him and dash into the backyard, chasing him for 45 minutes while he plays keep-away. You catch up with him and give him a good scolding, thinking you’re punishing him.
Congratulations! His favorite toy is now a computer disk, and you don’t understand why. Your dog will now look for every opportunity to drag you away from your mundane activities and engage you in 45 minutes of exercise and undivided attention.
Can you see the irony? You can’t expect your dog to choose good manners based on what’s punished and what’s not punished. A training system based on punishment isn’t effective for a dog whose choices are based on what’s rewarded and what isn’t.
Your Dog Doesn’t Know Right From Wrong
Here’s another big tip: Dogs are amoral. They have absolutely no sense of what is right or wrong, good or bad, in our world. You may think your dog is nothing but trouble … but in reality, you’ve trained him to perform each one of those bad behaviors.
You see, a dog has no way of knowing which behaviors you think are good or bad. He isn’t a mind reader. You’ll confuse him if you do nothing to reward the good behaviors (the absence of bad behaviors), and inadvertently reward the bad ones.
You are causing your dog to make all of the wrong choices.
Now we know why so many people have “bad dogs.” But you can avoid this pitfall. Since you now know that your dog bases his behavior choices on perceived positive consequences, it’s your responsibility to make sure that the behaviors you want lead to positive outcomes for your dog.
That’s all you have to do to be a good dog trainer. It can’t get any easier than that.
How To Reward Your Dog
Here are some examples of behaviors to reward. Act quickly with a treat, because at any moment the dog could switch to a less desirable behavior, which you won’t want to reward.
Sitting quietly means … not jumping, not barking, not running away, not biting … generally the absence of all of the other “bad” behaviors.
You might say, “I’m supposed to reward my dog for just sitting there? I don’t care what he’s doing, as long as he’s not getting into things and causing trouble!”
Well, that’s what you’re rewarding: not getting into trouble. And you’ll see a lot more of it when you start rewarding it.
I told you this was going to be easy…
Coming To You
This means he’s checking in with you … for any reason. Give your dog a reward any time he does this.
Giving this behavior favorable consequences will result in a dog that watches you, checks in with you often, and doesn’t run away when you call.
Walking On A Loose Leash
Doesn’t it make sense to show a dog what he’s supposed to do by rewarding the behavior, rather than trying to issue a jerk on the leash for all of the possible thousands of incorrect choices that don’t constitute heeling?
Make Obedience Fun!
It’s no wonder that dogs don’t thrill to the thought of obedience training … while those same dogs will perform tricks with great gusto. This is because trainers didn’t traditionally use treats to teach basic obedience skills like heeling and coming when called.
It’s easy to figure out that your dog is more excited about performing tricks because he gets treats. Here’s the biggest clue of all: your dog doesn’t know which are life-saving obedience skills and which are cute parlor tricks. He’ll perform his obedience skills with great enthusiasm if you use food to teach those too. For all he knows, he’s just learning more tricks! And they’re all fun.
The Best Reward For Your Dog
The most motivating reward for dogs is usually food. There’s nothing like a treat to tell your dog he’s doing a good thing.
If you see a behavior you like, treat it. Then you’ll see that behavior much more often … instead of any bad behaviors that might have taken its place. I repeat: food is one of the best rewards because it’s number one on your dog’s list of favorable consequences.
Remember, though, that anything can be perceived as a reward by the dog. Any attention is a reward (even attention with yelling).
Here’s your last hot tip: Your dog decides what constitutes a reward or favorable consequence.
Suppose your Labrador is barking in the backyard. You go and throw a bucket of water at him. He barks more. Was this a good consequence or a bad consequence for him? If the behavior increased, then it was a reward rather than a punishment. Being a Lab, he probably loves water and your attention. You’ve just rewarded him with both.
Here’s another example.
A dog in my obedience class just wouldn’t stop barking the first night of class. His owner asked me what he could do about the barking. I told him not to do anything about the barking. Ignore the barking. Instead, I told him to address those brief moments of silence in between the barking by giving the dog a treat. The man looked at me like I was crazy, but he did what I said. By the end of that night, his dog was consistently choosing the behavior that was earning rewards: sitting still and being quiet. He completely abandoned the barking, because it was being ignored. The man was astonished that it worked so well and so quickly. So the bad behavior was stopped without punishment (which strains your relationship with your dog).
I hope this has helped unlock some of the mysteries of dog training. It’s as simple as rewarding the behaviors you want to see more of. If you do this consistently, then what pleases you and what pleases your dog will be one and the same.