In spite of all the scientific and practical knowledge we have of dog training, there are still many owners who complain of non-compliant dogs. With so many different methods of training, it is little wonder that owners are often confused and sometimes even give up trying. Over the years, I have seen the entire spectrum of methods, owners, dogs, and ultimately results.
One thing is consistent, though, regardless of the training method used, and it is true whether training for obedience, sports, or general good behavior. When training fails it is the most fundamental part of the process that is being overlooked–relevance.
In a Dog’s World, Relevance is The Key
The most important effort you can make is for your dog to value your role in his life. Many owners don’t get the results they want from training, not due to the method they use, but because their dog doesn’t fully understand the how and why of the method. Quite frankly, many owners don’t fully understand it either, in part because every trainer has his or her own opinion about how to train.
This is an oversimplification, but we can categorize pet dog trainers into three camps: those who use treats, those who do not, and those who use treats in specific situations. It is easy to focus on the differences, but what they all must include in order to be effective is relevance. No method of training will work if you, the owner, is not relevant in every aspect of your dog’s life. It is not simply about your dog earning a reward. It is about you, the owner, becoming the reward and compliance being a way of life for your dog.
Once the dog learns this, pleasing you in itself begins to motivate him, and the reward becomes pleasing you.
Here is an easy way to look at relevance using the Food Reward Method. Done correctly, using treats in training can be a good thing. However, if it is only a bribe and you are only the treat dispenser, your dog will never work for anything but treats. He will blow you off anytime he feels like it. You must teach your dog that the treat comes from you, but only when he pleases you with his behavior. Once the dog learns this, pleasing you in itself begins to motivate him, and the reward becomes pleasing you. In training, this means showing your dog the degrees by which he can earn his reward.
The type of reward must be motivating for your dog, in other words, don’t use something as a reward that he does not like. Think of the top five things your dog loves and use those in your training. It can be food items, toys, belly rubs, going for walks, going for swims, or whatever he loves.
The same can be said for training methods that do not use food, but rather, for example, using collar or leash corrections. Your dog will only listen to you if he has a remote collar on or is on-leash. He complies because he must in order to avoid the correction. He has not learned to comply because in doing so he pleases you. Here too, you must teach your dog that you are relevant and working for you is what gets him his desired reward, such as praise, a walk, or chasing squirrels.
A good way to demonstrate relevance in training is “come when called.” If you ask your dog to “come” and he ignores you, he does not get a reward. Over time, the dog will learn that he will not get a reward if he ignores you. This may mean doing a lot of on-leash foundation work on the “come” command for your dog to truly understand what you are asking him to do. If you ask your dog to come, and he slowly makes his way over to you, he will not get the treat that he so greatly desires. He will only get a lackluster verbal praise in the form of “good dog.” If, however, you ask your dog to come, and he rockets over to you, he will be lavished with excited praise and the treat reward. You must be consistent in the feedback you give him so he can rely on the outcome.
In other words, you are demonstrating that his response is what makes you produce the type of reward whether verbal praise, a pat on the head, or his coveted freeze dried liver. This may seem like a subtle nuance to you, but in a dog’s mind, it speaks volumes. It can be the difference between a dog who will work to get what he wants and a dog who will work to give you what you want.
Living with a dog who will only work for what he wants can be simply frustrating or at worst dangerous. Living with a dog who will work to give you what you want because he gets something out of it too is joyous.
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