Knowing what motivates your dog will make your training easier and more effective. In my beginning class, I ask the owners to make a list of 5 things their dogs love.* I encourage them to be both broad and specific. Broad in the sense of looking at what your dog loves to do, places he likes to go, things he likes to eat. Specific within those categories: if she is play motivated, what games does she like, and is there a hierarchy of games? For example, your dog might see play this way: “Tug trumps chase; hide and seek with a toy is better than Tug; hide and seek with my person is better yet; and Fetch! is the gold standard for all things diverting me from chewing shoes.”
While I am a proud cookie pusher and advocate the use of food rewards when training your dog, especially in the beginning, I also encourage owners to look at other things that could be used as rewards for desired behavior. If your dog, for instance, loves to go outside and races out the door, nearly knocking you over, use the act of opening the door (which she loves) as a reward for the calmer behavior of sitting before the door is opened. In this way, you are using something she loves (access to the great outdoors) as a reward for something you love (calm behavior at the door). Likewise, use play as a reward for other behaviors. If you want to teach a quick sit, have your dog sit before you toss the ball. If the launching of the ball depends on sitting, then sit will happen pretty quickly!
Another thing to look at is how motivated is your dog by physical contact, your voice, and food.** When helping clients learn what motivates their dogs to stay with them, I will have them do the following:
Start with your dog next to you. If your dog is on a leash, then either drop the leash, or keep it very loose. You want to see if your dog will stay with you by choice, not by tether.
1) Using only your voice (no touching your dog, no using your hands in any way, and no dispensing treats), try to keep your dog with you and focused on you for 10 seconds.
2) Using only your hands (no vocalizations of any kind, no holding your dog in place by his collar or any other part of him, and no food), try to keep your dog with your for 10 seconds.
3) Using only food (no touching, no talking or cooing), try to keep your dog with you for 10 seconds.
Now, rate them from most to least effective. Which one made it really easy for your dog to stay with you? Which was the least effective? There is no right or wrong answer here, just valuable information on what your dog likes.
Repeat the 10 second experiment using various combinations of these three things to see if there is any increase in the value of your reward. For example, If you don’t have any treats, use your happy voice and rub her ears, or talk to her while you give her a series of 3-5 treats, especially if she has done something wonderful. Adding rewards together, should increase their value to your dog and you should find that it is easier for her to ignore distractions and stay focused on you.
So, the bottom line is: Look at your rewards. If she is not paying attention to you, then what you are using to reward her is simply not valuable enough. Moreover, if your dog seems to take forever to learn something new, then you need to step up to the challenge of finding the reward that is equal to (or exceeds) the value of the distractions that make this new behavior so hard to learn. When you know what she truly loves (ear scratches, playing ball, banana bread, and string cheese, for example), it will be much easier to ignore or prevent any unwanted behavior, and efficiently and effectively reward the desired behavior.
*In a recent Your Family Dog podcast, my podcast partner, Colleen Pelar, and I discuss how words matter when you describe your dog’s behavior. Colleen talks specifically about listing your dog’s favorite things and prioritizing their value. You can catch (and subscribe to) our podcasts, by the way, on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, on Podbean, or on our podcast website, Your Family Dog Podcast.
** You can also do this experiment with toys to see if you can keep your dog focused on you for 10 seconds with only a toy.
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