By default, nearly all of the cool stuff that my dogs get to do in their lives involves me (or my wife) in some significant way. So it stands to reason that we should be fascinating to our dogs. Any move toward the door or a nearby toy could signal an outing or a play session. Even the clothes we wear or the shoes we put on could give them some signal that something fun is about to happen. But those things don’t always mean that something great is going to happen for our dogs. In fact, if our dogs get too enthusiastic about these little signs too often, it can lead to being scolded and told to “calm down” if we’re just getting up for a glass of water or running out to the grocery store for more milk. It’s not always about them and they learn that pretty quickly. So I know that we are interesting to our dogs, just not all of the time.
In my previous article, Stay Interesting to Your Dog,I talked about the value of creating a system of signals to let your dog know when the “good stuff” was going to happen and when they should just relax. Putting some structure around helping our dogs know when it’s time to play and time to rest can be a great help to both the dogs and the humans. But over the years, I’ve learned from some very talented trainers that there are a few other tricks we can use to stay fascinating to our dogs as the years go by!
Easy does it
One of the most common mistakes I see watching some trainers is that they are too stingy with their rewards. This can be because they are expecting too much progress too quickly or even thinking the dog doesn’t need to receive a reward for a behaviour once it has been “learned”. As I have said before, training is a process and we need our dogs to trust and believe in that process. It needs to be predictable and productive in order for them to want to expend the energy to do it with us. In my experience, one of the fastest ways to lose that trust in training is to make it too hard for the dog to be successful (i.e., earn the reward).
I have a simple rule of thumb to help me know when the training is “too hard” for my dog. If she isn’t getting the behaviour right at least 7 out of 10 tries, then I am expecting too much. I always go into my training with a plan to lower what I expect as “successful” if my dog is not responding to what I’m hoping to teach. I make it easier for her to get it right. For example, if I am training her to go out and around a cone 20 feet away and she is stopping halfway or appears unsure of what I’m asking, I will move her closer, say 5 or 10 feet, and give her a more helpful prompt with my arm to help her understand and get it right. Then I can increase the distance again to see if she understands.
I also think it’s important not to let her fail too often before stepping in to help. To handle that, I have the “Rule of 3” – If my dog fails twice in a row, she must be successful on the third attempt; even if I have to ask her for a different behaviour that I know she will get correct. It is a rule that has worked well for me. My dog never finds herself in a situation where she tries and tries and starts to lose faith because the rewards aren’t coming. In a way, I have rigged the game so that she is never more than 3 tries away from a reward. She’s always a winner. By keeping training time “easy”, I make sure that my dog never feels like learning is a chore.
Planning the unexpected
Just as my dogs can learn that “good things” are coming from cues in the environment, they can also learn that certain signals mean that nothing good is going to happen. Those kinds of informational cues can be good when we use them on purpose but dogs are amazingly good at figuring out when their efforts are not going to pay off. One of the ways I try to shake things up for my dogs is to unexpectedly mix easy, well known behaviours into their regular training. While working on a new and complex behaviour that I’m trying to teach, asking my dog for a “sit” or a simple “hand target” (both behaviours she has done thousands of times successfully) can be a welcome relief from figuring out the new “hard stuff” we’re working on. I’ve actually seen my dogs visibly brighten up when I ask for the easy behaviour as if they are saying “Oh yeah! I know that one!”
As trainers, we can too easily fall into focusing too hard on whatever it is we are trying to teach in that session. One method I use to break the tension of new learning with my dog is to ask for a quick set of easy to do behaviours that I reward her for very well. I call it “Machine Gunning.” I cue my dog for well rehearsed, easy to do behaviours in rapid succession – cue-behaviour-mark-pay. “Sit”, dog sits, “Yes!” (my marker word), give her a treat. “Touch!”, dog touches nose to my palm, “Yes!”, give her a treat. Repeat four or 5 times using any combination of well known behaviours. I do this quickly for 2 reasons – first, it means that she has to pay attention if she wants to join the party and, second, it means that she earns lots of rewards in a short span of time for very little effort.
Everyone wants to be a winner
There are other techniques that are often suggested to keep the dog’s interest during training. “Jackpots” offer the dog an unusually large reward in response to a particularly good response during training. Interestingly, I haven’t found any scientifically tested evidence to show that “Jackpots” help dogs learn faster or better with “Jackpots.“ In fact, one study shows that “Jackpots” can have a short term distracting effect that could disrupt learning. Another common technique I see is trainers who enthusiastically celebrate their dogs good performance with verbal praise and physical affection. Like “Jackpots”, I often see these celebrations having no benefit to the dog’s actual learning but could be distracting and might actually get in the way of good learning.
Many trainers like to incorporate “play” as a reward in place of or in addition to food rewards. This can be a wonderfully fun and effective reinforcer for teaching new behaviours. But it also has the potential to be disruptive or ineffective is not used wisely. For example, if I throw a ball as a reward for my dog during training, I have to accept two potential downsides – first, it will take time for my dog to return with the ball and that will slow down the pace at which we can continue our training and second, my dog (and not me) is in control of when we get back to the training depending on when and how fast she decides to return with the ball. The same is true with games of “Tug” where we depend on the dog to decide when to release and give up the toy. Both of these games and other forms of play can be wonderfully effective if we recognize their potential shortcomings and use them wisely. If your dog isn’t coming back or is reluctant to let you back into their game, maybe you aren’t being as interesting as you thought.
I think the bottom line here is that everyone likes to be a “winner.” Even our dogs. We all like to feel like we will be rewarded with the “good stuff” if we put in the effort. We perform more enthusiastically when we trust that those promised rewards will happen reliably. Providing good structure to our training is a great first step but taking care to do little things to provide happy surprises for our dogs can keep them sharp and attentive looking for the next opportunity to earn a reward.
As a trainer, I know that it can be too easy to focus on the results. “Is my dog getting what I’m trying to teach?” But it’s the process that we use that will determine how enthusiastic my dog will be about training months or years down the road. If I make the effort to keep my training interesting and rewarding for my dog in several ways, I am creating an activity that she looks forward to and we can do together for her entire lifetime. There will always be another chance to teach my dog and get the results I want but if the process becomes too frustrating, my dog might not want to work with me. And that makes everything more difficult for both of us.
Until next time, be INTERESTING to your dogs!
These Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
Photo credits –