There is a school of thought that suggests dog training is a purely scientific endeavor that relies 100% on a trainer’s mechanical skills – a good trainer should be able to take any random dog and create behaviors, whether or not they have any real relationship with that dog. Within this school of thought, emotional or verbal interactions from the trainer are perceived as distractions. A verbal “yeah!” is frowned upon. Celebration? Downright unprofessional. Good training is sterile.
Somehow, that sterility has been called a “benefit” because it leads to the faster acquisition of behaviors. True enough; taking the time to genuinely interact with your dog will interfere with the flow of training. It’s even possible that it might distract the dog from their task, thereby losing some of your forward momentum.
The fact is, this clinical method of dog training works quite well to GET behaviors – indeed, I think it is the fastest way to obtain them. But dog training is not a race. The dog who acquires behaviors slowly because of joyful personal interactions during training has a real long term advantage over the dog who acquires behaviors quickly, but sees the trainer as a food dispenser rather than an engaging partner.
If you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably interested in not only getting behaviors, but also in maintaining them. You want reliability under conditions where the dog has figured out that no food and toys will be forthcoming. Dogs can be tricked into believing that the reward is coming during a trial for awhile, but one day, your dog WILL figure out that the traditional rewards simply do not happen in the ring. The question then becomes….what’s left?
If you plan to compete at the higher levels of obedience, you might want to think about how you train your dog NOW so that she stays in the game when the food and the toys do not materialize later. That’s when your emotions – your genuine and enthusiastic interactions with your dog – can get you through… but only if you’ve trained that way. Whipping out the party in the ring will only confuse your dog if you haven’t conditioned that as a normal reward in practice.
If you’re having fun (and I certainly hope you are, though at times I’ve watched others training and wondered), then why not share that joy with another being, a being who is genetically hardwired to pay attention to your emotions? Yes, dogs read our emotions….very well, in fact. The more externally you express your happy emotions, the more your dog will learn to look for them. If you can get your dog addicted to your happy emotions, then your dog will work to elicit them. Teach your dog to work you, not just for food and toys, but for your emotional reactions.
The more expressive you are as a person, the easier this will be. But if you’re a person who internalizes feelings, that’s okay, because what your dog will notice is a change in your overall emotional state. Dogs get used to you however you are; you don’t have to imitate my style to show joy to your dog, but you do need to change where you are on your personal register. The very external and exuberant person will need to go higher than an internal person.
Now we’ll try it.
Get your dog and start a training session. Identify a point when you’d normally toss out a cookie, but before you give it, show a true expression of joy or a play-based behavior to your dog. Remember, for some of you, that will just be a genuine smile. For others, it will be a full out whooping, leaping, free for all. The cookie is now rewarding your interaction rather than the behavior that precedes it.
Now refine it a little; think in terms of “degrees.” Small accomplishments will elicit a reaction, but not the same reaction as a major breakthrough would. If a smile is good, a smile and a pat are better. A smile, pat and hug are better still. And then there are the moments where you’ll practically break out into song…running around and cheering and offering your best play-based behaviors.
This approach to training isn’t hard, but you will need to give yourself permission to show on the outside what you’re already feeling on the inside. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it. It feels good to play with your dog and soon, your dog will start to smile right back at you! Then it’s almost impossible to stop training because you’ll get addicted to that happy feeling.
It astonishes me to hear well regarded trainers say that dogs require a paycheck to perform, and then imply that food is the only paycheck that really matters. Yes, the dog requires a paycheck, but don’t assume food is the only currency.
A high percentage of dogs will work to play and interact, but only if you build and maintain that interest. If you train as if you have no more value than a food dispenser, then you will remove your dog’s love of interaction, but when you celebrate with your dog, you take advantage of a unique and powerful aspect of dogs: they CARE what you think about them. When you talk to your dog, they wag their tails because they like to hear your sincere and enthusiastic praise. When you run around and act silly with your dog, they will join you, especially if you start when they are young and you work to build and maintain that interest.
If you show genuine expressions of joyful emotion, you’ll be surprised how much you can reduce your food and toy rewards. If you’ve been shoveling out food for years then you’ll struggle with this concept, because now it’s a matter of food deprivation rather than attractive alternatives. But if you’ve naturally blended the existence of classic rewards (food and toy) with interactive rewards (play and praise) then the issue of deprivation does not arise. It’s simply varied reinforcement.
Surely you feel joy and excitement when your dog accomplishes some goals? Why restrict yourself to a private party when you can invite your dog? This is a party that deserves a guest, so make it a party of two!
If you think a bit of guidance might help you to develop your playful side, join me for my class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy that starts on August 1st, called “Relationship Building Thru Play“. There we can explore a wide variety of options to help you become a more playful partner for your dog, whether your beloved pet or highly polished competition dog.