Out there in the wider world of dog training, a debate rages about whether dog training using food rewards and positive reinforcement is good for dogs or bad for dogs. Claims and counter-claims are made on both sides of the issue. Those who take a more traditional view of dog training try to discredit trainers who use rewards to encourage the behaviours they want in their dogs. Positive trainers who use rewards and science based training do their best to clear up misinformation put forward by their opponents. Despite claims to the contrary, dogs do not die on a regular basis from being treated with kindness, understanding, and being educated.
For the most part, I try to stay out of such debates. I find it best to pick my battles. Musician and post-modern intellectual Frank Zappa was quoted as saying “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” Those who are not open to the possibilities that modern behavioural science offers will find any reason to discredit and avoid consciously using it. Despite the irony that all training, regardless of method or philosophy, is explained in detail by behavioural science, many dog trainers cling to the old ways and wag their finger at those of us trying things a different way. But I have done things their way in the past and I find what I am doing these days is much more satisfying and effective for me and my dogs. So I have nothing to prove to anyone.
Using positive training and behavioural science has led me to so many fascinating and wonderful insights about both dogs and communicating with animals. Many of those insights were important and changed my relationships with my dogs. I have been lucky enough to have shared what I learned with people who have thanked me and gone on to have improved relationships with their own dogs. But not all of this journey has been serious and important. There is a lighter side to positive dog training.
Reward based training is an interesting thing. Depending on your point of view, either you are training your dog or your dog is training you. Let me give you an example. If I am training my dog to touch her nose to a ball, I will use a marker like a clicker to let her know when she has earned her reward. When she hears the click, she will know she has done something I was looking for and will get a treat. But how does this look from her perspective? I know that I am looking for a specific behaviour. From my dog’s perspective, she is trying to get me to make the click noise. So when she succeeds, did I successfully train her or did she successfully discover the secret to the click and reward? The answer is both!
That “lightbulb moment” when an animal realizes what is getting the reward can result in some delightful behaviour. This video of a woman clicker training her ferret clearly shows a joyful “happy dance” when the ferret discovers that touching the ball is the key to getting the reward. Although one of the important concepts of reinforcement training is to keep the subject’s success rate high, many animals seem to experience a joyful reaction when they have earned their reward. Our younger dog Rizzo has always been an enthusiastic learner. Whenever my wife marks his correct behaviour with a click or by saying “yes!”, he springs straight up in the air with a leap of joy before taking the treat or grabbing the toy.
Another friend of ours, Monica, trained a Vizsla named Zeeva for the sport of agility. One of the habits Monica developed during training was to throw a treat bag for Zeeva at the end of the weave poles when she completed them successfully. Zeeva would gleefully leap out of the last weave pole into the air to chase the treat pouch that she would bring back to Monica to deliver the treats. To this day, Zeeva still does her little “hop of joy” as she exits the weave poles even as she continues on her way on the agility course. It is a wonderful reminder of how much fun Zeeva has playing agility and I giggle a little every time I see her do it.
Another element of reinforcement training is that the dog is not reprimanded for offering something other than the behaviour the trainer is looking for. Non-correct responses are just ignored to make it easier for the dog to understand when they get the behaviour right. No response means try again. A marker signal means “That’s right!” and a reward for the effort. This can lead to some interesting learning on the part of the dogs.
My wife’s cousin Gillian has 4 reinforcement trained dogs. Her dog Rocco is arguably the most creative and persistent of the group. One of the important lessons Rocco seems to have learned about Gillian training him with a clicker is that if Gillian doesn’t have the clicker, there can be no training. So Rocco has taken it upon himself to find clickers and bring them to Gillian whenever he can find them. That behaviour has led to many hours of challenging “hide and seek” with Gillian trying to find better places to hide clickers and Rocco producing clickers at unexpected moments for Gillian as a reminder that he likes training and can we do the “treat game” now?
My own dog, Tiramisu, knows what she wants and how to get it. Having been clicker trained from 10 weeks old, Tira knows that the surest way to earn rewards is to offer behaviour. She is now on regular medication for thyroid that she gets twice per day. Every evening between 5:30 and 6:30pm, Tira will present herself to me or my wife with bright sparkling eyes, a big smile, and an adorable swishing tail. If this does not get the required reaction, she will play-bow to make sure she is seen. You see, we always give her a pill wrapped in a yummy treat pocket. Heaven forbid that we should forget – Tira is always there to remind us.
Any trainer who uses reinforcement training will have dozens of stories like the ones I’ve shared. Seeing our dogs exercise their creativity and to see how they think is truly a joy. The experience of playing that behaviour-marker-reward game teaches them to try things out to see how they can affect their world. That initiative can be a great thing. It can also get you into trouble if you don’t provide enough opportunities for your dog to use their newly developed brains. You can get behaviours from your dog you can’t really understand and seem downright weird!
On balance, training our dogs using behavioural science has created dogs that actually do think. That means it is easier to communicate with them. We can tell them when they have done something right and also to communicate when they have done something we don’t want. That ability to learn is something that we teach through behavioural training. It’s about communication and understanding. They can become quite good at it and, if we do it right, it becomes a two-way street where they can teach us about themselves too.
Yes, it can be challenging staying ahead of a clicker trained dog. Their creativity and resourcefulness can be quite remarkable! But we find it infinitely preferable to a dog that is reluctant to do anything unless given a command. Each of our dogs has been different. Each has had their own personality with their own likes and dislikes. And I don’t think I would have had the joy of knowing the many sides of them without using positive reinforcement training with them. Positive training does have a lighter side. I like to think that both the dogs and the humans get a lot of joy from it in many unexpected ways.
Do you have a fun story about the lighter side of your positive training with your dog? I’d love to hear about it.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
Photo credits –