In the world of raising and training dogs, the best outcome occurs when you have that special bond; when there is a “Give Me What I Want, and I’ll Give You What You Want” partnership. The canine cop gets to catch the bad guys, and his dog gets to chase and sometimes bite them. The sheepherder gets all of his stock into the proper pen, and the herding dog gets to move them there. The pet dog owner gets to enjoy the companionship of a well-mannered dog, and the dog gets a well-rounded, exciting life, including excursions out in the world, and inclusion in the family home. In these relationships, both parties are getting what they want. Dogs like all creatures, learn to offer and repeat behavior that earns them rewards. If you want your dog highly focused on you, engaged and always ready and willing to do what you’ve asked of him, then you need to convince him that everything he enjoys in this world comes solely from you.
What are rewards exactly? Anything that your dog finds pleasurable, and this can vary from one dog to another. Rewards go way beyond the offering of edible goodies. In fact, some dogs prefer other, non-food rewards. If you get the feeling that your dog has become bored with your training sessions or life lessons, chances are he’s just not motivated. But you can change that.
If your dog clearly enjoys treats as a reward, then your job is to find a variety of healthy options that he likes. By rotating a number of different types of treats into your routine, you get that extra bonus of unpredictability, which dogs love — which treat will be offered today?
Some dogs thrive on toys as rewards. There are lots of different shapes and textures available, and it takes time to figure out what your dog deems as special. For training sessions or life lessons out in the world, make sure your toy selections are easy to stuff in a pocket. And remember, if your dog takes the time to destroy the toy, it’s proof that he loves it. Toys work best as rewards if they are earned by the dog, offered by you and then put away until the next training session. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Your dog likes activity, so why not use activities as rewards also? A simple paw shake might be all that you require before throwing the ball, or perhaps a down/stay for a minute first. Walking politely on a loose leash for a stretch might earn a little bit of tug time or exploration of the environment as a reward. And a sit before being allowed to crawl into your lap for cuddle time is always a good idea.
Environmental rewards are the easiest to use. Just figure out what your dog wants around the house: Going outside, coming inside, getting into or out of the car, access to the furniture or bed, access to the food bowl, etc. Throughout the day, ask your dog to do something before granting him any environmental reward. You get the polite behavior you want, and the dog gets what he wants.
What to do if your dog doesn’t respond to your cue? Wait a few seconds, then walk away, denying him the privilege, and try again in a few seconds or a few minutes.
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.