Following on from my ‘The Secrets to Reward Based Training’ and ‘8 Ways You could be Unknowingly Rewarding Undesirable Behaviours from your Dog’, it is time to look at how to communicate what you want your dog to do first and for them to respond appropriately before gaining any type of reward.
All dogs have different values to their rewards. The main one for most dogs is food, and that is why treats are used in rewarding dogs when learning new behaviours, or counter conditioning their minds to have a positive association with a previous negative experience.
Many people get concerned about food treats thinking their dog will get too fat or will end up not do anything without a food reward. Firstly, the treat only has to be tiny, no bigger than the size of your finger nail and any treats can be taken from the dog’s daily food. Secondly the food treats are used as a reward after a marker word of ‘Yes’ or ‘Good’. When the behaviour has been learnt, the word can be used and the food treats become less, but always treat intermittently otherwise the learnt behaviour will start to fail and remember to praise lots too so your dog knows it is behaving as you wish.
You can also request more behaviours be carried out in a row, for example a sit, a down, and a come and then use the marker word and treat. The time and distance can be increased to gain the reward, so the sit and stay could start at 5 seconds and increase gradually. Mixing up the commands brings new challenges for the dog and keeps their interest and focus on you.
Not all dogs value food at the top of the reward list, for some dogs it maybe a priase, a toy, ball or interactive game. Sniffer dogs will work tirelessly following their ‘search’ command for the reward of a short ball game afterwards.
I have used the eight examples from ‘8 Ways You could be Unknowingly Rewarding Undesirable Behaviours from your Dog’ to suggest some ways for you to gain a better alternative behaviour using positive training methods.
‘Reward calm behaviours, ignore excitable behaviours’.
When preparing your dog’s evening meal –Before feeding your dog, request a ‘sit’ from your dog. Do not put the bowl down until your dog is following the command, even a slight intention to sit is enough and then gradually increase the time by seconds and add a ‘stay’. Tip: You can prepare the food earlier and put it away as this stops the initial excitement and arousal starting to build whilst you are preparing the food. This keeps the dog calmer and more likely to follow the new commands.
Your dog is excitable when visitors come around – For a dog to stop doing an undesirable behaviour giving an alternative behaviour is often the answer. This one may need to be practiced with a willing friend or neighbour. Your dog needs to be taught to sit and stay to start with using reward treats and without the distraction of a visitor. Only when your dog is calm is the visitor allowed to interact calmly back to your dog. Tip: If you dog is very mouthy or jumpy with visitors then a special toy for just this time is invaluable as your dog will be distracted with showing it off or playing with it rather than mouthing or jumping up.
To stop a dog begging for food. This is a simple one to answer but very hard one to do! Never feed your dog from the plate, lap or table. If you have any scraps, then the reward for not begging and lying down can be the scraps put in your dog’s bowl in another room. All family members have to be committed to this, that’s the hard part. When some big eyes are staring you out resolve can go. If your dog never gets titbits when you are eating it will get bored eventually but this might take some time. Steadfast and see it through.
Excitable dog pre-walk – This is a long the same lines as feeding in Example One. Your need to ensure you dog is calm before you put the lead on or open the door. This is a waiting game so to train this behaviour be sure to have plenty of time. When you dog realises it is going nowhere it will settle down and you can pop the lead on. The excitement may then reappear and again just stand and wait. Open and close the door a little and request your dog to ‘sit’, when you dog goes to go outside, shut the door and again request a sit. Soon your dog will learn that the door will not open until it is calm.
Poor recall – Dogs learn very quickly that when they are called from being off the lead that this means the lead is going on and the fun has finished, where’s the reward in that? Start to call your dog back intermittently and give a high value reward to start with, a bit of sausage works wonders. If they are not food treat orientated, then call them back for a play. This way your dog will never know whether it is having the lead on or not. Always praise you dog for returning to you it is a valuable command.
If your dog is not moving off the furniture when asked – This is a fundamental imbalance in the owner-dog relationship and you need to take control of your basic commands and withhold any treats or rewards until they are followed. If aggression is a factor, then I can offer specialised assistance in this area.
Mischief maker – If you dog is causing mischief around the house it is most likely bored as it is trying to gain your attention. Plenty of exercise, chew and puzzle toys should help. Some environmental management is always good such as an unobtainable rubbish bin and washing and socks out of reach.
A ‘glued to your side’ dog – If your dog is constantly by your side everywhere you go in the house this is a sign of anxious and insecure behaviour or a dominant behaviour of needing to be in charge of your space. Although we all like to think it is because our dogs love us so much, your dog is gaining an internal reward to itself. From doing this it can be fuelling some undesirable behaviours which need rebalancing. Please contact me for more specialist advice in these areas.
Always keep your training fun, short and regular when you are asking your dog to learn a new behaviour to the one displayed previously and start in places with least distractions. Try using a variety of food treat rewards of different values, a bit of cheese, ham and dog biscuit, that way your dog does not know what is coming next and will not get bored of one type. Finally consider exactly what behaviour your dog is displaying before gaining the reward.
It would be great to hear from you on any behaviours from your dog that you now feel you have changed to better behaviours by switching around who is controlling the reward. It’s great to hear success stories and inspires other readers.
I hope this has been a useful and interesting article if you wish to discuss any of the topics further please contact me.