By Guest Blogger Jose Gomes, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant
We humans have a natural tendency to assume that our dogs should do what we tell them to do based on an intrinsic desire to “please”. Well, unfortunately I will have to start this small text with some bad news. There is very little evidence that dogs (and any other animal species for that matter) have such built-in desire. On the contrary, ample evidence suggests that they have a great desire to rather please themselves.
Why does a dog go through a door way? Why does a dog pick up a piece of food that you accidentally drop? Why does a dog climb to the couch? Why does a dog get into the car? Why do dogs do all of those things without being asked or instructed to do so? The answer is: instant gratification. We can train them to behave otherwise in such situations and there will be some dogs that are an exception, but most dogs will do those behaviors naturally, simply because it feels good to do them.
So, first things first: let’s assume that dogs do not have a “natural desire to please the owner”. Most operant behaviors happen with an underlying question in the back of the dog’s mind. That question is “what will I get out of this?” or “what’s in it for me?” From now on, whenever your dog does not do what you ask, think about the dog’s perspective and what he has to gain or lose from doing it. That brings us to the topic of motivation. Motivation is the fuel required for training to happen. If there is no motivation there should be no training. This is one of the main differences that I often see between new dog owners and dog trainers. A good dog trainer will address motivation first, before being concerned with training. Many dog owners want to jump right into training, totally disregarding motivation.
So, how can we motivate a dog to do things for us? Well, there are basically two main ways to achieve this (with a few variations and combinations). Option one is to find something that the dog wants and to use it as a reward for doing what we ask. Option two is to show the dog that if he does not do what we request there will be bad consequences. So, in short, the dog will either be pursuing pleasure or avoiding displeasure.
Option one is a much better choice for a variety of reasons and detailed information on this topic is beyond the scope of this article, but consider this: 1) in developed countries people work either to get paid or because they enjoy their work, or ideally a combination of both; 2) a few centuries ago during slavery periods, most of the world population worked to avoid bad consequences. Which of the two philosophies would you like to implement in order to build a relationship with your dog? I strongly recommend that you go with option one.
If you and your dog are at home, it is very likely that you will have the dog’s undivided attention when you start interacting. Problems occur when there are competing elements in the environment that at specific moments are more relevant to the dog than you are. Unfortunately, sometimes you are not going to be the most meaningful person for your dog (e.g. he might be more interested in sniffing a bush or in greeting a stranger in the street). In this regard, there are two options that we can use to get our dog to listen to us when there are competing elements in the environment: we can either try to be more interesting than the environment or we can offer access to the interesting element as a reward for doing what we ask. For purposes of this article I will focus on what we can do to be more interesting than the environment, which is usually called engagement or attention training.
One of the first things we should consider is which reward to use. Here are some of the rewards that I use: food, toys, access to a tree/person/another dog, going through a door, petting/stroking, talking to the dog, movement, mini party (an event in which I offer several rewards in succession). I must confess though that for this specific training food is my favorite reward, as most dogs are naturally food driven. It permits a lot of repetition, and allows me to use luring in an easy manner. I recommend getting a bait pouch to carry food treats with you whenever you go out, and to keep a container on your kitchen counter that provides you with quick easy access to additional food treats. If your dog is very food driven you might even be able to use the dog’s normal food as training rewards. Keep in mind that for many dogs a high value food reward inside the house will be a low value one when you are outside, so adjust accordingly. We need to use something that our dog really wants to guarantee his/her attention. For example, would you consider working for 1$ per hour? Probably not, but you would most likely be very happy to work for 150$ per hour.
Engagement or attention training basically consists of going out with your dog and having fun. I recommend that you do a lot of lure reward training and/or target training. Basically we want the dog to follow our hands to get food rewards. Before each treat is delivered, you should use a marker or a bridge. Two commonly used options are a click from a clicker or saying the word “yes”. You can also mark and reward for following, running after or simply looking at you. Additionally, you can use a “let’s have fun” cue to start and an “all done” cue to wrap up the engagement session. What we are aiming for with this training sessions is to have a dog that will look at us wondering what fun things you are going to be doing and what rewards you have on you whenever you go out. If you have a new puppy or a recently adopted dog, I recommend that you focus more on attention training initially before you start to ask for formal obedience behaviors. When we have attention or engagement assured, training the dog is much easier. For additional information on this topic, as well as practical examples, please refer to my video called “How to get your dog to pay attention to you”, indicated below.
I would also like to mention satiation briefly before we wrap it up. The less often you take your dog out, the more of a “big deal” it is every time you do. For example, if your dog goes for a walk once or twice a week it will probably be more difficult to get him/her to pay attention to you than if you take the dog out a couple of times a day. Thus, the longer your dog spends outside the house, the more desensitized to the outside environment he/she becomes. In other words, it is less likely for the dog to be easily distracted by environmental triggers.
In conclusion, to get our dogs to listen we may need to take a different approach to the problem, using one that acknowledges that dogs have self-centered motivations to interact with the world, and that recognizes that we need to have some form of pay to get them to do what we ask. We then need to find what motivates our specific dog under different scenarios. Finally, we need to go out and have fun with the dog, whilst trying to be more interesting than the surrounding environment. Most importantly, we should always focus on engagement or attention training before we start asking for formal obedience behaviors.
Jose Gomes (Hons) Marine Biology, (MSc) Marine Resources, (MSc) Psychology is a Certified Canine Behaviour Consultant by the Animal Behaviour Consultants of Southern Africa. He currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa but will soon relocate to Melbourne, Australia.
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There are a ton of dogs out there that find the process of getting their nails clipped to be horrible. In lots of cases it is down right traumatic. This makes clipping their nails often times impossible. Of course, when they struggle, it results in more people holding them down which just makes it even more traumatic.
While there are low stress handling techniques that I recommend for nail clipping, this article isn't about those. This article is about teaching your dog to file its own nails. This is a lot of fun to be honest. All you need is a little bit of patience, a board to tape sand paper onto, some high value rewards, and a marker word or clicker. In the video below you'll see how I teach this to my dog V. This is the first time we've ever done this so I left it long and mostly unedited. I want to show how the process works.
Something like this is beneficial in multiple ways. The most obvious is that your dog 's nails are getting shorter. The less obvious is the mental stimulation that comes from the training, the bond that you build with your dog with the training, and also it's another trick for your dogs arsenal. The cool thing is that the more tricks you teach, the easier it is for your dog to figure out new ones in most cases. V has done stuff like this before, so he was probably more prone to getting this a bit quicker compared to a dog that has never done anything like this.
When you start this off with your dog, like I mention in the video, look for small glimpses of the overall behavior. This is a process called "shaping." Shaping is about putting small behaviors together to get to your goal of the big behavior. And remember, as I mentioned, stay patient. Look at how long I am just sitting there doing nothing waiting for V to offer a behavior. Try not to give too much help either. Often times the more help you offer, the more dependent your dog becomes and it can stifle your progress.
One thing that I noticed even before I was a dog trainer was the fact that people want to be able to take things from their dogs. Things include, but are not limited to, bones, food bowls, toys etc. I mean, I get it, sometimes for your dog's safety you need to take things from him. But the overall idea that you as the human should be able to take something, because you're a human, is the wrong mentality and is what leads to dog bites.
If you haven't caught on yet, I do not recommend walking up to your dog and taking objects from him. This is because it can lead to your dog guarding objects. Guarding objects is what is known as Resource Guarding. A dog typically resource guards something that is of high value and isn't readily available. Resource Guarding is a pretty natural thing. I mean, we do it all the time. With that being said, when we do it we don't bite. (At least I hope not.) When we Resource Guard it typically consists of telling someone or something to get away from our food. It's the same concept for your dog, except he doesn't speak english. When your dog guards, he does it primarily via bodily language.
If your dog has an object, here are some signs to look out for to see if he's trying to tell you to give him some space:
- Staring at you
- Staring in a direction and not moving
- Freezing (Body is still)
- Eyes open wide
- Furrowed brow
- Lips pulled back as far as possible
- Panting (If your dog hasn't just exercised, this is usually a sign of stress.)
- Licking of the lips
- Taking object and walking away when you get close
Some of the signs are obvious, and some are not. A lot of times people are unaware of the signs that aren't so obvious so they're under the impression that everything is fine, until one day, the dog growls and or bites. Once this happens, it feels like it comes out of the blue, when in all actuality, the dog has been warning the people all along.
So with all that being said, it isn't safe in most cases to walk up and take something from a dog. The good news is there are ways to get your dog to view you as a non threat when he has something of value. Once again, dogs guard because they feel that their object will potentially be taken away. So taking that into consideration, if we do lots of repetition of walking up and dropping something awesome when they have said object, they can start to view our presence around their high value object as a good thing, instead of a bad thing. **** I want to put a disclaimer out there right now that if your dog has a serious guarding issue, you need to hire a certified trainer to help because this can potentially be a very dangerous situation. Okay, back to where I left off; If they are viewing our approach as a delivery of something awesome, then they have no concern that the object will be taken away, thus no need to guard. Sounds simple, right? Well, the concept certainly is.
With that being said another great option is to swap out a valuable object your dog has, with another valuable object. If your dog has something that it shouldn't, instead of walking up and trying to take it, offer something to him so you can grab the other thing. The best way to go about this is to show him something good, which should result in him dropping the "bad" thing. When he drops the "bad" thing you can give him the good thing. You will then want to take another good thing and toss it a decent distance away. This should result in him going after the good thing, giving you a window of opportunity to grab the "bad" thing.
The video below is from 4 Paws University and does a good job of giving a visual of the first method I mentioned. Take a look.
Additionally there are cues that you can teach to get your dog to "leave" something when you ask. The video below is one way that I introduce "leave it" to dogs. The video is a couple years old but still works. The only thing that I do differently now than in the video is I recommend waiting to say "leave it" until your dog has started doing the behavior. As you'll see in the video I say "leave it" first and then wait. Teaching this way isn't the end of the world, though the dogs typically get it quicker if you teach the behavior first, and then add the cue.
And finally, here is my favorite video on how to teach your dog to "drop" an object that it has in it's mouth. This video is made by a Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners. I really like the idea and it can obviously work very well.
In conclusion, the overall idea is to not be confrontational in these situations. The more confrontational you are, the more likely you are asking your dog to bite. Remember that dogs are animals and they do what makes sense to them.
In this brand new video I am discussing and demonstrating how to teach your dog not to bolt out of an open door. This skill can come in handy if you have a dog that sees an open door and just can't help but run out of it. To start off you'll need a 4-6 foot leash, some high value treats, a release word, and a doorway. The overall concept is to teach the dog to wait at the doorway until released to go through it. This is something you need to be very consistent with in order for it to work. Take a look!