When I’m working with students in my dog training classes, I stress that keeping the dog motivated to learn is the most important part of the job. If your dog isn’t interested in working with you, chances are they aren’t learning much of what you are trying to teach them. One unfortunate side effect of an uninterested dog is that the human trainer will often get frustrated and try lots of different things to re-engaged the dog in the learning process. We move, we cheerlead, we tease, and we can be quite vocal in our efforts to get the dog to pay attention to us. It’s probably best to take a break and rethink how you go about your training if keeping your dog’s focus is a frequent problem.
Positive trainers can have lots of success in keeping their dogs engaged. There are many dogs that can’t wait to work for their rewards. For some dogs it’s food, for others it’s a game of tug, and for still others perhaps it’s a game of fetch with their ball. There are very few things in dog training more fun for the trainer than being able to deliver lots of rewards to their dog during training. But here’s an interesting thought: can rewards be too rewarding? Can the things we use to encourage behaviour in our dogs actually overshadow the things we are trying to teach?
Playing to distraction
Many trainers like to move beyond basic food rewards when using positive reinforcement training. Most dogs find play rewarding whether that play is chasing a ball, playing tug, or just engaging with their human in a little play wrestling. Used effectively, play can be a great reward for teaching behaviours. One aspect of play that should be considered is that it can be so stimulating that it can actually get in the way of learning. Clearly the dog enjoys the game, but is the anticipation of that game becoming a distraction? At what point is your dog learning a behaviour and when are they just doing anything to get you to play?
Play is a very seductive reward to use in training. A dog that enjoys their game is very obvious about it. And, let’s face it, it’s just great watching our dog have a good time. In fact, it can be so engaging for the trainer to see their dog having fun that it may actually cloud our understanding of just how much learning is going on. We need to keep in mind that the best indicator of our training effectiveness is the behaviour that remains after the session is over.
British trainer Kay Laurence points out in her article “When is a Distraction just a cue?” that a stimulus (sometimes called a “prompt”), a distraction, and a cue may all be the same thing in different forms. We use “distractions” to test whether or not our dog can perform a trained behaviour in the presence of something they shouldn’t be paying attention to. But sometimes that distraction is unintentional. The presence of a ball is distracting to my dog if I am going to reward her with it in training. If I have the ball where she can see it, she may become preoccupied with watching the ball or trying to get it, and not focus on what I’m trying to teach her.
The allure of the lure
Many trainers use food in their training. One common form of food training is called Lure and Reward training. The basic process uses a food treat held in front of the dog as a prompt to get them to move through a desired behaviour. The key to using food lures in training is getting rid of the food without losing the behaviour. But there is potentially a more detrimental aspect to this type of training. The food itself could be a distraction!
In her book, “Click to Calm”, author and dog trainer Emma Parsons recommends the use of a presented food lure to draw a dog’s attention away from an unwanted stimulus such as another dog or scary situation. Steven Lindsay calls this “sampling” or “priming” in his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols. It is the overwhelming physical response to the scent of food that interrupts the dog’s thinking process and focus on the unwanted thing.
This same physiological response can work against the trainer attempting to do lure and reward training. If the food is held too close to the dog during training, it is quite possible that any learning about what behaviour they are doing is being overwhelmed by the scent of the food and the physical response that produces. Like our play scenario, the dog looks very eager and motivated to work for the food but what are they actually learning?
The lesson here for me is that seeing my dog enjoy herself during training is not really a guarantee that she is learning what I am trying to teach her. And this is where my advice to my students can get me into trouble. Yes, a motivated dog is necessary in order to be effective in training them. They have to be engaged and “in the game”, so to speak. But as a trainer, I need to be careful that I am managing all of the stimuli and distractions, including the rewards they are working for, so they don’t become overwhelming.
It’s easy to get caught up in having fun with my dog. It’s great to see her having fun and I want her to enjoy our training together. But I also have to structure my training program so that I vary my rewards, my approach, and my process so that I can assess exactly how much of what I’m teaching is being absorbed. This might involve changing the rewards from time to time, working for no rewards some times, and even introducing new distractions just to see how much of what I’ve taught her has actually been learned.
Not every training session has to be the pinnacle of efficient learning. Sometimes it’s better to just go with the flow and make it into a game. There is something to be said for those “light work” days that end up just being a fun bonding experience for you and your dog. Being a good trainer sometimes means keeping a balance between the challenge of new learning and just having fun.
A dog that is eager for rewards will work hard for you. Just don’t let the anticipation of those rewards work against you.
Until next time, have fun with your dog.
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“Dogs: As They Are”
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