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"My dog only listens when I have a treat."

March 22, 2018

My dog is untrainable. My dog is dumb and can't learn anything. My dog knows everything at home but won't listen to me when we go out or if he sees a squirrel. He sits perfectly if I have a treat, but he won't do anything if I don't have one. These are statements we hear a lot. Really. A lot. And they arise generally because training is often started and not continued perhaps as far as it should be, or because the training methodology used is not fun or enjoyable for the dog.


As with anything, there are any number of ways to train dogs and any number of opinions, but they can generally be lumped into a couple of very loose categories.


Compulsive Methods – They are not always as scary as the name can lead one to believe, and they simply involve the application and release of pressure. At one end of the spectrum it can be forceful, but at the other end of the spectrum, it can be as subtle and as gentle as pushing down on the dog's rear end to make him sit. Not something most people would consider unfair, and something that is widely used to teach basic obedience.


Positive Methods – These methods involve the use of rewards, sometimes luring the dog into position with a treat, then rewarding. Or, rewarding behavior as it is spontaneously offered (called capturing).


There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of training. Compulsive training, in its stronger forms, nowadays is often considered cruel, and people are turning more towards positive methods. In its milder forms (e.g. pushing down on his rear end to produce a sit), it can produce a dog that knows commands but doesn't enjoy training or performing because there is no reward for him when he complies. However, positive-only methods can produce dogs that only listen when a treat is offered, or only when the dog feels like eating or playing with an offered toy... And sometimes that doesn't help when what the dog really wants is to chase that squirrel. So, what is the answer?


Well, perhaps taking the best parts of both philosophies and meshing them together? Just like children, dogs do best when they have clear, understandable boundaries where the opportunity for reward also exists. Too much force makes for an unhappy dog, but a lack of consequences can create a spoiled brat.


Balanced Methods – Our approach to dog training falls under the umbrella of a balanced method. We believe in teaching commands using the power of a positive reward (treats, toys, etc.). Then, once he understands what each command means, we believe in enforcing boundaries and adding in clear, understandable consequences for inappropriate behavior (or for not following commands).


The advantage of this method is that we teach the dog each command in a stress-free way that makes learning fun. We find something that he likes (hot dogs are always a favorite!), and we use it to lure him into each position while pairing that position with the command. While this can sometimes take a little longer than more compulsive methods, it produces a dog that wants to learn and wants to do what we are asking because it is beneficial to him as well. Win-win situation.


Only once he clearly understands each command do we start to introduce consequences for non-compliance. A dog can only misbehave if he understands what is being asked of him and then refuses to comply. A dog that does not understand what is being asked is not misbehaving if he does not perform, he is merely confused. Confusion produces stress, and stress makes training not fun. Consequences do not have to be stressful for the dog as long as he understands the 'why' and what he must do to change the situation. We go to great lengths to make sure that the dog understands each correction and how to turn it off in order to keep learning fun.


The result of a balanced training approach is a dog that enjoys learning and is performing because there remains the possibility of a reward. On the flip side, when he is around something that he finds distracting (that squirrel or other dog), he also understands that compliance with obedience commands is not optional, and we have a way of enforcing our commands around distractions in a clear and understandable way.

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