Monday, June 27, 2011

How to Use Treats When Training

Treats are probably the easiest way to reward your dog in training. Luring with a food treat can accelerate his learning, especially in the beginning when your dog has no idea what you want. But there is a little skill needed to prevent it becoming a bribe.

Most dogs LOVE to eat and therefore, consider food a high reward and will be motivated to continue to receive the reward. There are a few dogs out there who think treats are alright, but really could care less if they got one or not. Find out what motivates these finicky pooches. Is it ball? Belly rubs? Just hearing your voice? That will be their reward. It’s really important for your dog to perceive it as a reward, not just you.

When considering a treat, use small soft treats. Your dog can quickly gobble them and he won’t be loading up on the calories. Many companies now make pre-cut soft treats, but the ole favorite is Natural Balance’s dog food rolls. You can cut them into any size piece, so they’re great if you have particularly tiny or giant dogs (or both!). Plus, they’re lower in calories than traditional treats.

When you first teach a new cue to your dog, have the treat out to lure your dog. After several repetitions, he’ll start to grasp the concept and the lure can be tapered back to a reward. This means that you’re not blatantly showing him that you have a goodie; he’ll see the treat when he performs the cue given.

Don’t bribe your dog. If your dog understands what you want and you feel you have to bring the treat out to get him to perform the cue, then it’s a bribe. Sometimes if you wait a few seconds for him to complete the command, he’ll do it. Just hold still, be quiet and let him think. So many times we just want him to do it now and don’t give the dog enough time to think about what was just asked of him. We throw up our hands and the treat out to have him do the command quickly. It’s not a race. Be patient. If your dog is thinking, yeah! That means he’s using mental energy and will be tiring out.

Timing is important for him to associate the reward with the cue he just did. You have less than 3 seconds for him to make that association. That’s it. Otherwise, he’ll think he’s getting rewarded for something else.

Nikita is lured for new command, Dance.
Nikita is rewarded for new command, Dance.

Once you have about 80% success rate with a cue, then you can move towards giving a treat on a variable ratio (remember PSCH 101 in college?). Sometimes he gets a treat, sometimes he doesn’t. Dogs don’t have a sense of morality, so they won’t hold it against you if you didn’t treat the last time. Think of it as a slot machine. How many people sit in front of those electronic boxes performing the same behavior over and over because little pieces of metal might spit out?

TIP:  You can also only provide treats to the best or fastest cue to encourage that behavior over the sloppy or slower ones.

Eventually you can wean treats off altogether and just tell your dog Good Boy and that will be enough for him. But in the beginning you want to heavily treat to motivate your dog and show him, yes, that’s what I want.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Training Before Behavior Modification

You might be thinking, “What does teaching my dog commands have to do with teaching her not to do that annoying habit?” It has everything to do with it. Training and behavior modification go hand in hand (or paw in paw as the case may be); they are not isolated skills despite what a certain popular dog psychologist may lead us to believe.

So many times I’ve heard people say they love everything about their dog, except (fill in blank). They wish she wouldn’t do this or that. Ask them what they would like her to do instead and they tilt their head a little and look confused.

We get so focused on what we DON’T want our dog to do, that we forget what we DO want our dog to do. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on people, what would like her to do instead? Sit? Go to her bed? Well, tell her that. It really can be that simple.

That was my Ah-Ha moment in dog training. When my trainer explained instead of focusing on what not to do, focus on what you want your dog TO do.

I can say, “No, no, no, stop it, stop it, stop it, blah, blah, blah…” all day long to my dog. But if I never tell her when she’s doing something right, she’ll try to keep guessing (and consequently be stressed) or worse, give up and resign to being a blob. Does this sound familiar in our own lives? How many of us have had bosses where we felt like we can’t do anything right because our boss was always pointing out the things we did wrong. Yet she never gave us appropriate feedback of what she wanted to see happen instead?

Also how many times have we completely ignored when our dog was being a well-mannered little girl and only comment when she goes berserk? We just missed tons of opportunities to say, “Yeah, good job!”

In every behavior modification, I start by teaching owners and their dogs basic (and sometimes advanced) commands. Then, we move towards that goal of getting rid of those annoying habits (from our perspective!). I’ll sometimes put those annoying behaviors on command to give the dog an opportunity to still ‘misbehave’, but it’s in a controlled setting. And I control it by turning it on and off.

Going back to the jumping example. This is where teaching your dog commands meets behavior modification. Teach your dog to sit. If your dog is sitting, she can’t be jumping. If sitting is still too tempting for her to bounce up, then teach her to go to her bed. This removes her from the super excited situation of “Oh my God, my butt is wiggling so hard that I can’t control it”. It also gives her something to do that will teach her the self-control she needs until the situation isn’t so exciting anymore.

You can also teach your dog to jump on command. WooHoo, an opportunity to be a dog and jump. Have you seen how dogs greet each other? Especially labs and bully breeds. They don’t just shake hands, how do you do; they body slam each other like basketball players coming off the court after a 3-pointer. Just be sure to immediately follow the jump cue with a sit cue to keep her from getting too excited again. 

Kajta, Jump
Kajta, Sit

So, the next time you get frustrated at what your dog is doing, tell her a command instead. By consistently giving her things to do, you’ll also be building upon your relationship in a positive way.