Cooperation and Control

Imagine This. A small child walks over and holds out his toy car for you to admire. You reach out, pick it up, and….
You put it in your pocket.
How cooperative do you think that child is going to be with you in the future?

We do things like this to our dogs. They fetch a toy, release it at our request, and we take it away – into our pocket, and then ask them to work. Then we complain that they don’t play fetch. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to play with you either.

The trick to gaining cooperation is considering your interactions with your dog from their point of view, and then asking yourself, for every interaction, how can you add value to that event?

For example, if your dog fetches their toy, rather than taking it away you might admire it and then bring to life a second toy without ever asking for the first, to start developing a pattern of cooperation. That game can quickly turn into the game of “switch”, which you’ve seen frequently if you’ve watched my videos training dice. Dice has a high level of possession, and yet he will comfortably switch from a low or no value object (fetching a piece of plastic that I request) to a high-value object like a tug toy, and then back again – letting go of his high value tug to grab the plastic – simply because he trusts that I will make it work for him.

Maybe what your dog wants most when they bring you their toy is to play tug. So if we attach a “number scale of value” to this event, maybe holding the toy in their mouth is good for a 3, fetching the toy is good for a 6, and playing tug with you is good for an 8.

Great! Let them bring you the toy to play tug! And if they don’t bring it to you? That’s fine; they can keep it at the level of a 3.

But, you say, then the dog has won! They have the toy!

They may win the battle but you’ll win the war. Now they have a data point to compare to in the future when they do bring it back and get a crazy good game of tug out of you. They may not figure that out the first day, but they figure it out pretty darn quickly. Remember, training is for the long haul – who cares what happens on one day? Give your dog the power to choose – they’ll choose what you want if you set up training to make that happen – eventually.

The more time you spend interacting with your dog in this way, the more they realize that allowing you to lead the dance works out better. They will voluntarily cede control, and now you both win. But for this to work you have to develop the habit of considering your dog’s point of view. What can the dog get without cooperating? What can you add to the package to make cooperation the better choice?

Let’s use agility as an example. You place your dog on the start line, walk out, your dog ignores your stay cue, and you run anyway! The dog wins that round.

Let’s try again. You put your dog on a stay and your dog blows past you. You don’t get upset; you laugh it off, tell them they’re silly and adorable, and when they are ready you return them to the start line, simplify it a bit (don’t go so far?) and give it another shot!

What happens next? Well, if the dog stays, what can you do to make that run more exciting for the dog than the one where they went on their own? Quite a bit! Because when you failed to run with your dog – but didn’t get upset about it – what you are teaching your dog is that it’s not actually possible to run agility without you. Agility is a team sport that requires two players and your dog can’t do it without you. I mean, your dog might take a few obstacles and run amok, but I’ve never seen a dog do agility on their own, so it doesn’t matter if your dog breaks and you just wait for them, (cheerfully!) to come back and try again. (note: I’m addressing training and the start line stay, not trial stress or confusion or whatever else leads to start line failure)

Cooperation results from understanding what works, what doesn’t work, and then finding a way to let the dog win “best” when they do it your way. Those messages should be communicated in training, early and often, and then moved to trial preparation when they are well and truly a part of your training relationship with your dog.

I’m perfectly happy to let my dog explore what does and does not work. I don’t care if Dice picks up random toys off the ground in training because while that has value to him, it’s nowhere near the value he will get if he brings me that toy. Or better yet, if he waits until I send him to that toy because I can add value that he cannot add himself.

If your dog does not recognize that you can add value in training, you might want to take a hard look at how you structure your training. Why does the dog think they are better off ignoring you? Is it because your dog routinely self reinforces at a high level? Is it because you don’t add enough reinforcement when you do get cooperation? Is it because you inadvertently shoot yourself in the foot, doing things like taking away your dog’s toys and putting them in your pocket? Is it because you yell no and add corrections so your dog’s mental model is to fight with you – how to get around you rather than working with you?

Your goal should be to create such a habit of cooperation and valuing your presence in the training game that it is all your dog knows how to do. Once you have that, the rest is easy.