A couple of years ago I wrote a blog on the importance of “investing” ourselves in our training.  With my current blogs on Motivation, I re-read it to see where I stand today.  Here is the blog I’m referring to:

The Happy Emotions – A Party for Two.

I still believe what I wrote then but that blog referred specifically to our demeanor while training behaviors.  Today I’m going to take that idea a bit further.

It’s harder to have a genuinely personal interaction with our dog when we have a cookie in our pocket than when we don’t have one.  The cookies work so well!  The dogs show such obvious appreciation!  How many people take the time to do both; a cookie, followed by praise, with equal energy?  Cookies are easy but praise and play; not so much.  Is there a long term cost to this reliance on cookies?

Cookies do not build relationship but they do build cooperation.  Indeed, I often see them used as a one size fits all, modern, R+ leash.  No need to pay attention to your dog in public; just keep feeding and he will stay near.  No need to praise with genuine intensity for a job well done; just keep feeding and the behaviors will continue.  No need to learn to play with your dog or develop genuine  interactions that matter; just keep feeding, all the time, so you can communicate with your dog about right and wrong.

When we teach puppy classes, do we emphasize the importance of touching our dogs; playing and praising, the way we emphasize carrying a cookie in our pocket?  When we teach a puppy class and the owner has handed over a cookie, just how much praise is used to follow it up?  One second?  Three seconds?  A thirty second romp?  Or…none at all?  Is it is a mindless moment or a genuine interaction?

People would be appalled if we developed relationships with family members in this manner, yet my children would likely get much more excited if I gave them five dollars for showing good manners in a restaurant instead of my genuine praise.  Yet, even without the five dollars, my kids show exceptional manners in restaurants, because they value my appreciation and want to show me that they can do it again.  Do dogs think this way?  If I watch my own dogs, I’d say that they do.  They care what I think.  They work to please me and they try not to displease me.  Same as my human family members.

If you’re not comfortable managing your dog without cookies or a toy,  why is that?  Are we, the dog training community, ok with this trend away from personal interactions?  Could we inadvertently be creating a situation where heavy reliance on cookies or toys  are depriving us of the opportunity to look more deeply into the possibilities of our human-canine relationships?

Can you imagine a relationship with your spouse or child, where every cooperative move required a form of payment?

Interesting questions.

I’m not talking about teaching behaviors or maintaining  competition level work, because very few (if any) dogs would find that reinforcing without some serious external help.

But for daily life?  For an adult dog?  For simple behaviors that require no effort or endurance?  Should we be carrying cookies…forever?

Personally I do not choose to use cookies or toys for basic life skills past the training and puppy phase, and I have no trouble maintaining behaviors like a basic recall, crating on command, waiting at the door, etc.  Of course, I praise with genuine meaning when the behavior took extra effort (dog came away from a distraction rather than simply coming into the house), but…I do not feed.  Here and there I may find that I have a stray cookie in my pocket and I may hand it over as a bonus, but it is a surprise treat, not a payment.

And yet…those basic life behaviors continue with close to 100% reliability.  Why is that?

I praise.  Lavishly.  Enthusiastically. Genuinely.   I appreciate my dog’s good choices and I make sure they know it, especially if I can see that their cooperation came at a cost (coming away from a distraction, for example).  Under trying conditions, that praise might continue for a minute or more.

I believe in a dog’s intrinsic motivation to please us.  I also believe we can remove that intrinsic motivation if we continually substitute external motivators.  There are two reasons that come to mind; 1) the dog feels “deprivation” when we remove the thing they expected (cookies and toys) and 2) it’s easy to forget to be genuinely excited when our dogs cooperate if we’ve already “paid” with a cookie.  If my dogs make an effort then I feel the need to show my appreciation, and if I have no food or toys, then that leaves….me

I remember when Lyra was young – her behavior drove this point home to me.  For a few days after she arrived here, she came flying straight into my arms when I called her – she had never had a cookie from me and simply came for the sheer joy of my personal attention.  After a few days of giving her cookies for recalls, I lost that flying leap into my arms.  I watched as she came just as fast, but focused on my hand instead of my face.  When there was no cookie, the loss was obvious in her behavior.  When I praised as she ate, the value of the cookie was obviously more immediate and overpowering than what I was offering.  Yet only days before my personal attention had been a great joy.  In short, the cookies had sucked the joy out of our casual personal interaction.  My enthusiastic interaction had become a disappointment rather than a central pleasure. The lesson I took from that experience was to think long and hard about what I really need to offer in order to gain cooperation – and to offer no more than that.

I’ve said for a few weeks now,  “motivation” is an extremely complicated topic.  There are variables nested within variables.  There are training expectations, daily life expectations, and competition realities. There are speed and attitude considerations. There are issues of deprivation and relative values of reinforcers.  There are also significant genetic considerations regarding innate  levels of motivation.  There is handler talent to be considered as well.

For myself , there is also much to be learned, and a personal fascination with what we might discover.