Words that make me go hmmmmm….

Dogs trainers are veterans when it comes to hearing- “I tried that, it didn’t work.” This is often spoken by a client or potential client who after finally contacting a rewards based trainer explains why they don’t use food rewards. Their immediate assumption is that because they handed a few treats to their dog, and didn’t see an immediate change in the dog’s behavior, using food, or any kind of reward to train, doesn’t work. Clicker trainers also hear it when after picking up a clicker at a pet shop, aiming it at their dog and not getting an appreciable change in their dog’s behavior, an owner declares clicker training to be ineffective. Unfortunately, and disturbingly, there are even trainers who say the same thing.

Are there dogs who are not highly motivated by food? Sure there are, but there are very few so unmotivated that they’ll starve themselves to death. And there may be dogs who are too overwhelmed and scared to either play or eat, but that’s because they are overwhelmed, not because they lack a reward system in their brain. Even if a dog is afraid of the sound a clicker makes, the principles of clicker training can still be applied.

If the underlying principles, in our case, how dogs learn, are sound, then we should be able to take advantage of them. If we can’t, it’s telling us something other than that the principles are wrong. We know that we can make it more likely that a behavior will be repeated, or not, and we know that we can respond in ways to a dog that will either cause an emotional response to become more less intense. Depending on whether we want more or less of a behavior, or the emotion which drives the behavior, we behave i.e., train, accordingly. Good trainers also understand that dogs learn behaviors faster when they are rewarded for doing something right, compared to being punished for doing something wrong.

If you hand someone your keys so they can borrow your car and they return, hand you your keys and say, “Keys don’t work to start cars,” what are the chances you’d nod your head and agree? Not likely I’m guessing. There’s the chance they used the wrong key, or went to the wrong car, or there was no gas in the car or the starter was on the fritz. Or perhaps you have a replacement key that doesn’t fit quite right and requires a ‘special touch’ to get it to work. I rented a car and whenever I left it parked for any length of time it then wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. I wanted a different car, or at least a new battery put in it. It turned out that in this particular car it was possible to remove the key from the ignition when it was in the position that kept the alternator on. Unaware of this I thought I was turning the car off, but was in fact leaving the alternator on and it was draining the battery. I thought I knew how to turn off a car, but in this instance I didn’t.

People try different techniques to change behavior in their dogs. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, how infrequently they question how well they are performing those techniques before claim they don’t work. Don’t throw out the baby, or the treats, with the bathwater.

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11 comments so far

  1. EngineerChic on

    I struggle more with understanding what training method will work for different behaviors. For instance, if we turn away from our dog he learns not to jump up for attention. Ignoring bad behavior & rewarding good behavior (all feet on the floor) works. Not so much with barking.

    I recently decided that instead of training him not to bark I need to train him to hold a toy in his mouth. That will work in the house (where toys are plentiful) but less so when he barks at strangers in outside situations such as daycare. Still not sure how to handle that situation (he’s comfortable enough at daycare that he sees the building as “defendable” from strangers who are there to pick up their own dogs).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your situation is a good example of how a skilled trainer can help owners understand when they need to ignore, interrupt, prevent, punish or reward behaviors in order to get what they’re after.

  2. Sam Tatters on

    Brilliant.

    I think I’ll be sharing this post a lot, it’s to the point & full of facts.

    I will admit I struggle a little when faced with someone who says “+R doesn’t work for every dog”. If I can go away & come back I can keep my cool, but I often feel…frustrated when people ‘try’ clicker training for two minutes, or half a behaviour, and then give up when *they* can’t “make it work” (and invariably then start using some form of ‘training’ collar).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes. Amazing how many people think that their dog alone is the exception to the rules of how animals learn. I will often use the example of how challenging it is to change behavior by asking people how successful they’ve been when trying to change their own behavior, whether it’s losing weight, lowering their cholesterol, quit smoking or drinking, go the gym or exercise regularly, declutter their office or garage……why should it be any easier for us to get a dog to change their behavior when as supposedly high functioning animals, we can’t even do it ourselves, even if we know our lives and health may depend on it.

  3. Linda Aaron Morgan on

    we rescued a 6-8year old dog from a deplorable kennel 24h ago.he has not eaten or drank anything.any suggestions to help us?

    • fearfuldogs on

      The first and best thing we can do for any dog who is unable to eat because they are afraid of us is to provide them with a space, as similar to where they came from, but not as dirty, cramped or gross of course, and not put any social pressure on them, don’t bother them. If a dog was in a kennel or crate, give them a space like that. If they were with other dogs and feel better being in their company and you can provide a safe dog or dogs for that, that may be helpful. If they were outside and they can be safely housed outside, do that. They need to time to chill out and feel safe. Provide water and small rations of a healthy, tasty food, multiple times throughout the day, without trying to engage the dog. Place the food down and walk away. Do not talk to or try to handle the dog. Give that a try for a few days and see how it goes.

  4. KellyK on

    I think a lot of people say “X method doesn’t work” when what’s really true is “I’m not having success with X method.” Like, I’m currently having trouble keeping my dog from chewing on the couch. I could take it to mean that R+ is just no good and I need to punish her in some fashion. Or I could take it to mean that I’m not providing a good enough reward for doing the right thing or a clear enough signal of what the wrong thing is. I might also not be meeting other needs appropriately. Nothing works if you do it badly, or don’t give it a fair shot.

    (Having now thought the couch thing through a bit, it occurs to me that it happens when we’re playing computer games, so the dog is bored and not getting attention, and probably the best way to keep it from happening is to set her up with a marrow bone or a puzzle toy when we log in.)

    • KellyK on

      Not to derail your comment thread, but I mentioned this by way of analogy and I thought people might be interested in an update. Happy dogs are always on topic, right?

      I paid more attention to this yesterday and we made sure she had a treat towel (her favorite puzzle toy, and mine, because it’s really easy to wrap treats up in a dish towel for her to find), and then a marrow bone full of peanut butter. I also made it a point to scritch her and talk to her when she was sitting quietly next to me while we were playing, because I realized that couch-chewing is a sure-fire method of getting attention. (It does make me happy that the dog who was hiding in her crate not eating when we first got her is now all about getting attention from us and is confident enough to hop up on the couch next to me. I will take couch-chewing over corner-cowering any day.)

      And, voila, no more couch-chewing that evening. (I’m not naive enough to think the issue has been magically fixed, but yay for progress.) I’m also working on rewarding her for chewing on *her* toy, in the hopes of making it more fun to chew on than the couch. (Since she really likes to rip stuffing out of things, I’m debating getting her some dollar store or thrift shop stuffed animals that she can destroy, but I’m not sure if that will encourage the “rip apart stuffed things” behavior and result in the demise of more couch cushions or another down comforter, or if she will be able to make that distinction.)

      • fearfuldogs on

        Great ideas for dealing with the top piece of the sandwich! Be careful with products that are being manufactured overseas, especially if the dog might ingest any of it. Lots of bad chemicals being used. An easy homemade shred toy is to rip a towel into strips and tie bits of treat into knots made in it. Shredding may be part of a dog’s built in behavior kit. Some display it more than others. It is possible for them to differentiate between what is ok to put in their mouths and what isn’t. Management is probably the key with this until the dog is reliably not eating couches. By having other good options to chew we make it easier for them to make the right choice.

        Shy dog license is a common response by many of us, i.e., we’re so happy to see a ‘normal’ behavior, even if we’d rather they didn’t do it.

  5. KellyK on

    Another thing about food rewards is that in addition to having a million reasons why they might be too scared, or excited, or overwhelmed to eat, dogs also have food preferences. We initially had a lot of difficulty training Diamond because not only is she less food-motivated than some dogs, there are certain treats she just doesn’t go for. But not being able to train my dog with Milk Bones doesn’t disprove years upon years of behavior research–it just proves that she’s not interested in Milk Bones.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Both good observations Kelly. More meat, less wheat!


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