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.
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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