Just doing it for the food

Some people really get their knickers in a twist about using food when training animals, as though it is somehow cheating or insulting that their pet will work for food. We want to show people how to use food to motivate their pets in training, without bribing their pets or feeling like their pet is only in it for the food.

I like to think of a treat in training like my paycheck. If i didn’t get my paycheck each week i feel fairly certain the standard of my work would decline. Does that mean i’m only working for the money? Nope! I love working with great people, meeting awesome animals, and doing what I love. I also volunteer some of my time to helping local animal organisations, which i enjoy for the experience and warm fuzzies. I’m not working just for the money, but money is motivating for people. Food is motivating for animals!

When we teach our pets something new, we often start off with a treat visible. Our pet can see what’s on offer, and by the position of the treat we can help our pet do the right thing. When the treat is visible like that, we call it a lure (or a bribe). Lures can be really useful early on in training, but if you don’t fade them quickly you will end up with a pet who only responds when he can see what’s on offer.

dog training

That’s why I show people how to keep their treats hidden, and how to use either a clicker or a word to tell their pets they have done the right thing. The pet doesn’t know what treats are on offer, but through training experience we can teach them that listening to us pays off. As your pet gets the hang of a new behaviour, you can start to vary the rate at which you offer the treats. You become a random treat dispenser, and your pet will keep responding in the hope that this time it pays off!

By using treats to motivate your pet during training, you are proving that you are the source of great things, and that, by responding to you, your pet can gain access to things that he likes. Just like i enjoy the people, animals, and work that i do, your pet will enjoy the game of training and the time spent with you. By making training motivating and fun, your pet will genuinely look for ways to engage in training games with you. Training through positive reinforcement strengthens the human-animal bond.

Training Talk: Reinforcement

Welcome to the Training Talk series! We have decided to put together a series of blog posts to introduce readers to the basics of learning theory. Understanding the simple rules that cause animals to behave in different ways will help you to be able to work with your pet more effectively. Any trainer or owner, whether they are increasing good behaviour, decreasing bad behaviour, or working on an animals emotional response to something, is working with the principles of learning theory (whether they know it or not). We want you to understand how the different methods of training work, so that you can make informed decisions about how you train your pet.

In the first instalment of the Training Talk series we are going to look at reinforcement. What is it, how can we use it, and why does it work?

In the world of animal training and behaviour modification, reinforcement is simply something that increases the likelihood of the target behaviour occurring again. Notice how there is no mention of treats or praise? Reinforcement doesn’t exclusively apply to something good, it just means we are doing something that will make our pets repeat a behaviour.

Modern pet trainers generally focus on using what we call positive reinforcement. This means that the “something” that increases the chance of our pet repeating the behaviour is good. Our pet is repeating the behaviour to earn something, like a treat, and because they enjoy it they will do it more often.

positive reinforcement cat

Positive reinforcement is easy for us to use when training our pet. All that matters is that our pet wants what we have on offer (whether it is a treat, a toy, or praise) and we will keep seeing that behaviour. Even better for us, because our pet wants what we’ve got, they will look at training time as a fun game. Their behaviour can lead to fun consequences.

Traditional pet training (especially for dogs) focuses on a different kind of reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is still increasing the chance of our pet repeating the behaviour, but rather than earning something good they are avoiding something unpleasant. A mild example would be teaching a dog to sit by pushing its bottom down. By sitting, the dog will stop the pressure. They will learn that in future, if they sit promptly, they can avoid the pressure altogether.

You can see that while the end result is still that the behaviour increases, the experience is very different for our pets. Rather than seeing us as goody dispensers, and learning that they can earn the good stuff by behaving in certain ways, our pets learn that we can sometimes create stress for them, which they can avoid by behaving the way we want. This is less fun for both our pets and ourselves, and long term can create strong avoidance behaviours in our pets.

A feature that is crucial to understand about reinforcement in general is that it is unique to each animal or person. If you are trying to teach your pet to do something using praise or pats as your reinforcer but your pet is not repeatiang the behaviour, then praise or pats are not reinforcing to your pet in this context. Try using treats or a game with their favourite toy instead. Remember, by definition, reinforcement increases behaviour.

At Treat. Play. Love. we focus on teaching owners how to use positive reinforcement when training their pets. People bring pets into their lives for companionship and fun, we want to make training an enjoyable experience for everyone!

Is he stubborn, or smart?

In my experience, dogs that people call “stubborn”, “stupid”, or “untrainable” are often the dogs who really just want to know “What’s in it for me?”

Dogs have been kept as companions for thousands of years now, and one of the characteristics that we really like to breed into dogs is their ability to focus on and read subtle cues that we give. Some breeds, like kelpies and border collies, have been bred to really focus on these cues and to have a high drive to work with people. These dogs are typically called “smart” or “highly trainable”. They are no smarter than any other dogs (sorry folks), but their high drive for working with people means they respond first and worry about their payment later. Most enjoy the physical nature of the work they do enough that they find the work itself rewarding.

So how do “stubborn” breeds differ? Often they are breeds that were originally bred to work independently (as guards or hunters), responding to cues that come from external factors rather than people (such as the approach of someone unfamiliar, or finding a good scent). These characteristics set them up perfectly for the work they were bred for, but it means that we have to put in some work if we want our “stubborn” dog to focus on us.

stubborn dogs

This leads me back to the start of this blog. When we train our dog, we should always be able to answer the question “What’s in it for the dog?”. If we expect our dog to listen, the answer should be something the dog would want to work for (hot dogs, a game of tug, a belly rub).

Last year I read a great book called When Pigs Fly by Jane Killion. It is full of absolutely wonderful tips and guides for turning your “stubborn” dog into a training superstar. Depending on your dog you might need to start by actually teaching your dog that training is fun, or you might just need to change the approach you take.

No dog is “stupid” or “untrainable”, some just force us to start training smart, not tough!

Little Dog Syndrome

off the leash cartoon

I saw this cartoon on one of my favourite Facebook pages, Off The Leash, and it got me thinking. Small dogs often have a bad reputation in the pet industry. We hear people describe them as dominant, spoilt, snappy, rude, uncontrolled, and a whole range of other unsavoury things. So what leads to this “little dog syndrome” that people talk about?

Look at the above cartoon, and imagine that Alexander is a Labrador or a German Shepherd. Suddenly things get a whole lot scarier, and the cartoon is much less of a joke! Small breed dogs often miss out on very important training and socialisation, simply because their size makes their behaviour less annoying or destructive. If your 30kg dog is pulling, barking, lunging, and growling on walks, that is more than just embarrassing! You get physically tired, and passers by get frightened. If you lose control of the lead, then things get quite dangerous. When your dog weighs just 5kg you might feel embarrassed, but you won’t lose control of the lead, and you might even laugh at how “tough” Alexander is trying to be.

Unfortunately for 5kg Alexander, what he is experiencing is just as real for him as for his larger doggy friends. It is just as important to figure out why your small dog is behaving a certain way, and looking for ways to help him behave differently, as it would be if your dog weighed 3-4 times as much. Often when small (or large) dogs are acting really tough and aggressive, they are actually very scared and are simply trying to increase the distance between themselves and the scary thing by going on the offensive. Most people would rather their pet not experience life as something to be scared off!

Positive reinforcement and other force-free training methods can be used with any small dog to help them to adapt and cope better in a world where everything is bigger than they are, and some extra training can really help create a happier bond between canine and human family members.

Why I teach you, not your dog

There is a common misconception among many people who get in touch with a dog trainer, and that is that we train your dog. Some people even go so far as to assume that they will have no input whatsoever in the process, which is really challenging for us to work with.

Here’s the truth: when I come to your house for a training session, I will be training you. I will help you to understand how to do a range of training exercises and management methods that will help YOU to solve your dogs problem behaviours. I will demonstrate to you how to introduce these exercises to your dog, and then I will watch while you practice. I will offer you support and feedback so that you know you are doing a great job, and I will give you ongoing support to help you move from step to step. I will celebrate with you as you and your dog reach your training goals. But I will be training you, far more than your dog!

dog trainer

At the end of the day, my time with your dog will be somewhere in the vicinity of 60-90 minutes initially. We might book a follow up consult, which means I will spend another 60-90 minutes with your dog. You, on the other hand, will be spending hours everyday with your dog. Whether you are passively spending time relaxing together, or actively training, your dog will be learning from every moment with you. Consider every interaction with your dog a training opportunity. If I haven’t armed you with the training tools to make the most of these opportunities, then I haven’t upheld my end of the bargain!

I could create a service where I come to your home and work just with your dog. I could teach your dog to sit for greetings, walk nicely on a leash, focus intently on me instead of lunging at other dogs on walks, etc, but that wouldn’t help you. The process of training requires clear communication between a person and their dog, and the more time you spend teaching your dog that great things will happen when he responds to your requests, the more he will try to work with you. If I’ve put that time in, that does nothing for your dogs responsiveness to YOU.

There will always be trainers who offer to put in the hard yards and send a fully trained dog back into your home, but I am not one of them. I want to give you the skills to reach your own goals with your dog, skills that will help you not just with today’s problem but with every bump along the road you walk with your dog. I want YOU to experience the exciting rush when your dog can’t wait for your next cue because he enjoys working with you so much. I want you to see what I do, and understand why it works so that you can apply it with success yourself. I have no secret methods or tricks that I wouldn’t want to share.

At Treat. Play. Love. we train smart, not tough…and we want to teach you to do the same!

Don’t let a cue become white noise

“Fluffy, sit! Come on, sit. Sit, Fluffy!! Sit down! SIT!”

This is the dialogue many a veterinary clinic receptionist will be very familiar with. Sometimes we might offer to help by pointing out the treats beside the scales, placed to help with just a problem such as this, only to be told “It’s fine, he KNOWS this!”

dog training townsville

If you are repeating a cue, such as sit, and your pet is not offering the behaviour, then that suggests that he doesn’t know what you’re asking, or is too distracted to be able to respond. More importantly, by repeating the cue again and again with no response you are risking it becoming white noise to your pet. Next time you ask, you might find yourself ignored!

I like to tell people not to use a cue unless they would bet me $50 that their pet will respond correctly. A cue is a signal to your pet to offer a particular behaviour right now, and if you haven’t trained that behaviour well enough to be able to bet on the response you are setting your pet up to fail. You don’t want your pet to learn that “sit” means sit sometimes, maybe, if there are no other dogs around, only if Mum raises her voice and pops on the lead.

Any behaviour can be trained through positive-reinforcement without you opening your mouth or offering a polished visual cue. This is important to realise, as many people go about things backwards, offering the cue first and then trying to get the behaviour. It is less confusing for your pet if he knows what is expected first, and then learns that the cue means “do that now”.

parrot training wave

The process of being able to bet on your pets response in a variety of situations is called generalising. You need to teach your pet that “Sit” means sit whether you’re at home, on lead, in a vet clinic, or in the car. Help your pet in each new place by essentially going back to kindy. If you taught your pet to sit by luring with a treat, get the treat out again. Make it easy for your pet to respond correctly.

With time and practice you will find that new cues generalise to different locations much more easily, and you will be more confident about asking your pet to do something in a range of situations. Until then, set your pet up to succeed! Don’t let your cues become white noise!