A Dog's Eye View: If you eat your vegetables, you may have dessert

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Laura Tyler

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.

A frustrated dog owner once said to me, “I tried that positive reinforcement training, and it just didn’t work. My dog will only do it if I have food in my hand.”

“Oh dear,” I replied. This owner has fallen into the inexperienced trainers’ trap. You must fade the lure within the first few successful completions of teaching the behavior you want.

If we are inconsistent or have poor technical skill in the use or rate of reinforcement, then we can inadvertently make any behavior lure dependent. (This is how food becomes a bribe.) This trap will have repercussions with behavior breaking down in no time. In our training classes, if we use a food lure, it must be faded out within the first several repetitions. Then the patience game comes into play.

You must patiently and quietly wait for the behavior to occur on the hand signal you have taught, and after it happens, then reinforce it with your praise and treats. These few seconds while your dog sorts out the information and offers the correct choice are critical. We want to teach the dog he can make the choice we like. And we don’t want him to be afraid to try. If every time you tried to tie your shoes and got it wrong someone came up and pushed you over or said, “No, no, no, no, no, you idiot,” it might make you very hesitant to try the next time. But if you tried and almost got it right and someone showed you how to make it just a little bit better, you’d probably be in a more relaxed learning state, and you’d keep trying.

Grandma says, “If you eat your vegetables, then you may have dessert.” A skilled dog trainer thinks, “If you respond to my hand signal for ‘sit,’ then you will receive the reinforcement you like.” Grandma knows best! And eventually we can replace most food rewards with other motivating reinforcers, such as going for a walk if your dogs sits while you put on his leash.

You pick up the leash to take your dog for the walk, but all that tail wagging and wiggling make it difficult, if not impossible, to hook the leash. If you’ve taught a reliable “sit,” ask your dog to ‘sit’ only once. Then calmly and quietly wait. He’ll figure it out: The only way to get to the walk is to sit before you will put on the leash. Now the hard part: You must be consistent and decide what behavior is acceptable and make a 100 percent commitment to that decision. Anything less will be unreliable and ineffective.

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training.

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