Think You’ve Tried Everything To Train Your Dog? Doubt it.

cocker spaniel standing on wooden dog looking down at water

Looking for fish is rewarding to Annie. The fish reinforce this behavior.

Dog trainers hear it all the time- pet owners who have ‘tried everything’ or declare that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work because they’ve tried giving their dog treats and still have not been able to get the behavior they’re after. I can say with 100% certainty that if you are among those ranks that you have NOT tried everything. Everything you have tried might not have worked, but that’s different. It can feel as if you’ve tried everything, but take my word for it, you haven’t. ‘Everything’ is a tall order. You might have tried everything you can think of or have readily at hand.

The use of force, coercion or punishment is often justified because someone has ‘tried’ using positive reinforcement and been unsuccessful. Positive reinforcement works when you find something that is positively reinforcing to the dog. That you have not found what it is, does not negate the method. Even if your dog likes something, finds it rewarding, it may not be reinforcing. For something to be used as reinforcement is has to increase the likelihood that a dog will repeat a behavior in order to get it or make it happen. I may find painting my deck rewarding, it looks good when I’m done, but I do not find painting my deck positively reinforcing. I will only paint it again when faced with the possibility (threat) of having it rot, the embarrassment of having guests see an unattractive, peeling deck or the prospect of paying someone else to do it. I wish I found it positively reinforcing, it might get done more often.

A dog may happily gobble down a treat, wag their tail when you scratch their ears or tell them how marvelous they are, or gladly chase a ball, but not find any of these to be reinforcement for the behavior you are after. Or they might. My own dogs will perform some behaviors, but not all, for a food treat. And this is always subject to change. Anyone who has decided to join a gym may have had to play all kinds of tricks with themselves to get the habit started. These tricks often include some kind of reward, a favorite coffee drink after a workout or a new pair of sneakers or clothing. If the ‘going to the gym’ behavior is repeated often enough you might discover that you no longer need the reward to perform the behavior. You go for the sake of going and the workout has become rewarding, and reinforcing, in and of itself. Or whatever you were using to reward yourself no longer is enough and you need to change it in order to keep up the ‘going to the gym’ behavior.

Dog trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement techniques to build, shape or create behaviors think of themselves as detectives. We know, like someone investigating a murder that even though we don’t know who the murderer is, one exists. We know that if a behavior continues to be repeated, ‘something’ is reinforcing it. We also know that if we are having trouble getting a behavior to be repeated, we have not discovered what is reinforcing to the dog. If we decide to use a form of punishment to stop a behavior we are aware that unless we give the dog something else to do to replace the unwanted behavior we are likely to either get the unwanted behavior again, or end up with a stressed out dog who doesn’t know what to do for fear of being punished. When this happens we can see all kinds of bad behavior emerge, and unfortunately it’s a downward spiral if more punishment is applied to end these as well.

The next time you find yourself throwing up your hands in frustration, believing that you’ve tried everything, try contacting a trainer with experience in positive reinforcement and behavior modification. Good trainers see problem behaviors as puzzles to be solved, not confrontations to be won.



15 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    We’re still looking for the key to our Fearful Finna’s heart, that thing that totally rocks her world. We’ve found things that she likes and that are reinforcing but not that wonderful thing that everything else pales by comparison. It makes it a little harder that we have to be careful of her diet. Any meats other than beef tend to make her more reactive.

    I remember how difficult it was to train Ranger when he first came to live with us. He loved playing with dogs and meeting people more than anything else and everything else paled by comparison. But for a novice trainer the things he loved best were really hard to use as rewards. Then we discovered rotissorie chicken the real key to his heart.

    I like the way you describe it. Things that are rewarding v things that are reinforcing. You have a gift for explaining in ways that make sense.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for your kind words. I know the challenge you are facing. There are some things, like feeling safe, which will always take precedent over most anything else. That’s when changing the environment and/or meds can be so helpful.

      Good luck in your search!

  2. Susan Mann on

    Oh how true, hear it frequently! I’ll just add that good positive reinforcement trainers don’t just look for what it is that is truly reinforcing, but apply the principles more creatively. Its all basics- timing, setting criteria, using good reinforcements- but applying it to individual situations, recognizing what the dog is telling you, intervening early in the process, and using good management are things that a good trainer will be able to help with.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yup. What she said! Thanks for commenting Susan.

  3. Catherine McBrien on

    Great post, Deb. Everybody trying to help or train animals should put on their detective hats to figure out what makes them tick..

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Catherine, appreciate it. I have been so excited about learning more about behavior, brains and dogs. I sometimes feel like a kid discovering dinosaurs.

  4. glasgowdogtrainer on

    Great post, I look forward to reading more

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks! Nice to meet other trainers looking for coercion free methods to change dog behavior.

      • glasgowdogtrainer on

        Hopefully we’ll get the message through if we are consistent and polite. Coming from the dark side of dog training, it won’t be an easy task but we’ll get there.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    Culturally we are so entrenched in force, and coercion that it’s difficult for many people to opt out of those methods with their animals. Pity. But hopefully we will get there, there is movement in that direction.

  6. Heather on

    Ok, not to have the post upstaged, but I have to say, that is a wonderful picture of Annie. She seems so content and focused. Looks like she’d be there all day-or already has.

    I did enjoy the post. Working with my fearful foster is challenging me to re-think. I think I’ve risen to the challenge. And then beginning to re-define my relationship with my own dog. I work in Family/Child Welfare and it’s interesting to see the parallels, especially regarding the effect stress/trauma has on brain’s influencing behavior. Amazing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Heather. After years of visiting this lake Annie only just discovered fish. She will spend hours wading in the water looking for them, mostly little minnows, or getting up on the pier and watching for them.

      Like you I find animal behavior fascinating. I’ve got a bunch of little nieces and nephews toddling around these days and watching them do what they do, and their parents trying to encourage or discourage some of those behaviors, is not unlike a pet owner attempting to get their dog to ‘behave’. I like to watch the kids and try to figure out when they’ve become ‘smarter’ than my dogs. It’s a tall order. Not one has yet to be able to catch a frisbee in their mouth.

  7. Kate on

    Apart from it being an absolutely wonderful resource for people trying to help fearful dogs, another thing I am loving about your blog is that you keep addressing things that I don’t often see addressed by others. All those ridiculous (or sometimes even quite sensible-sounding – until you really think about them) arguments people put forth against force-free training – some are countered frequently, but I see a lot of others that are really common, yet not often addressed. I know it’s not seen as very “positive” to say “this is wrong”, but when these ideas are left out there with no comment, many people don’t realise that they could be inaccurate.

    I’ve seen you address a number of these things already, in this and other posts. The whole, “I’ve tried R+ and it didn’t work/I’ve tried EVERYTHING” thing is one of those – sometimes people address it, but I haven’t seen many good/clear explanations as to why this isn’t correct. Thanks so much. It’s such an important point that people have usually only tried everything that they *know* of. Doesn’t mean there’s not another option that still doesn’t involve aversives. I think people fall into the trap of thinking that positive reinforcement is a “method”, so if they’ve used treats, or even consulted a trainer that uses treats, then that = positive reinforcement, and the method they used has failed, therefore, positive reinforcement has failed/won’t work with their dog. Sigh.

  8. Jen DeHaan on

    What I love most about learning about dog behavior is … How much I don’t know! There is no end of new techniques and ideas. New interactions between people, other animals in the household. But most fun and interesting of all, figuring out creative new ways to problem solve. I find myself thinking about acting more and more. What is my body and voice saying. How can I communicate this best. Acting is key.

    But actually the biggest breakthrough with my biggest problem (a level 10 panic dog on daily walks) was jogging. Next to no communication other than a rhythm. The distraction meant we could get around the block finally without a panic attack, and led the way to a more normal life (and comfort. And potty walks.) Was just trial and error and brainstorm and chance that solved the very big problem. Force or pain were never an option… They never need to be.

    Great post and photo!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice work! Movement and all it brings to a body and brain can be a big perk.

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