Running seminars and workshops throughout Britain, Europe, and America, one aspect that I notice time and again is that many owners and trainers act as though training a dog is a military exercise. The commands are given in a hard 'Sergeant Major' voice and often there is a lack of reward for the dog even when he does the work correctly. With field dogs, especially, it is as if because the dog comes from a well-bred and proven line, the dog should automatically know and do what is required.
Training begins on Day 1
Training a dog begins the moment you get him. So often the puppy is played with, chased, wrestled with, and made to fetch and retrieve toy after toy in such a way that what the puppy is actually being 'taught' is to be obnoxious, jump all over an owner, and determine how to stop and start games. In this way, the puppy discovers how to take control. Puppies quickly learn how to use their voice, weight, speed and agility to their advantage. Then comes the day when the owner decides that enough is enough and the 'Sergeant Major' arrives, with the goal that this puppy has to be 'taught a lesson' and learn who is boss. A high percentage of the training then, unfortunately, is often based on correcting the dog when he has gone wrong and we quickly become 'nagging' trainers. However, even dogs that have learned bad habits can be shown what is expected through being very positive in our training, guiding the dog to do what we want by using the right exercises, using a fun approach, and training in places where the dog will be channelled or helped to perform correctly. Let me say, at this stage, I am not against corrections in training or aversives, I simply believe that, at times, we tend to fall back on them too readily.
I do the majority of my work with field dogs, and with field dogs and working dogs, provided we select from the right lines, we are lucky in owning dogs that have a natural ability and an inherited talent that we can harness to our advantage. They love to work, they love to run, and many field breeds love to retrieve. These are their prime rewards in life and by giving them these rewards at the right times and in the right way we can develop a field or working dog to be not only a good working partner, but also a wonderful companion and house pet.
Training with food treats
Many households are encouraged by commercialism and pet books to train with food treats. Although food is a basic requirement of life and definitely a reward, I am often left wondering whether we are underestimating the intelligence of many dogs. For puppies, food may be the ideal introduction to minor controls and it is an easy way to get the required response, but in the long run, does it create the bond required between handler and dog? Does it provide leadership for the handler? Does it generate respect for the handler from the dog or for the dog from the handler? Does it create affection and a loving relationship? Reward and the occasional reprimand have to be in a form which does all these things; they have to create a partnership where handler and dog are linked mentally through confidence, trust, and understanding. My own experience has been that by training a dog in a way which uses her natural ability is the best motivator and reward by far.
Types of rewards
Rewards, I believe, even for a dog, come from two emotions. First, the intrinsic reward for the dog comes from doing a job she enjoys, the feeling of doing that job well, and the praise she receives for it. The second type of reward comes from something completely independent of the task such as food, a ball, or a tug toy given as an addition afterwards, an extrinsic reward. Learning from actions which are enjoyable and the dog wants or is almost compelled to do because of its natural instincts, are easily rewarded. These actions can then be further reinforced through recognition in the form of praise and petting. Linked with what the dog enjoys, verbal praise becomes a strong reward in itself. Actions and training routines which need encouragement and may be slightly more tedious or boring to the dog can be rewarded with something at the end which is enjoyable - such as a game of retrieve. However, should routines be boring? Or can we make the majority of them far more enjoyable by using even what can be considered extrinsic rewards as an integral part of the training exercise and not just something added on at the end. The reward is then the exercise and the training session, which when additionally reinforced through praise and recognition of a job well done, develops the dog much quicker. In addition, the bond between trainer and dog will also grow at an increased rate.
In training dogs which have working backgrounds such as field dogs, who have been bred for their natural ability and instincts, the reward process becomes part of the training. The intrinsic reward and recognition through praise drives home the pleasure of doing the job and reinforces the action. Many dogs enjoy retrieving, chasing, or just carrying. With creative training exercises, one or all of these extrinsic rewards can be built into a training program and dependent upon the dog, the trainer will find one that works better than the others. Once one reward is found to work, then other training exercises can be made enjoyable simply by chaining the training exercises together and channelling the behavior you want towards finally obtaining the reward.
Set the dog up for success
Think through a training exercise and do it so the dog succeeds. With structured training an extrinsic reward in the form of a fun bumper or playing ball afterwards, may not only be unnecessary, some dogs do not want or need it. If you think through what you want to achieve you will be able to create ideas to control the dog and get the results because the dog cannot do it any way but correctly. All training should be done in small steps. For instance, we may think that because a puppy retrieves a ball from 30 yards away, she should be able to do any distance after that. The ability to retrieve from a distance has to be developed in small stages, and with some dogs, very small stages. The same with encouraging a good retrieve so the puppy brings it right up to your hand. I have trained many puppies to really want to come all the way up to me by using the hallway of my house or the narrow walkway between a fence and the house. Using very short retrieves to start with allows the pup nowhere else to run and channels the movement back to me.
I have had dogs that want to run to a specific place with a retrieve in their mouth, such as their bed or the kennel. In these cases I have had success by sitting in the bed or in the kennel doorway and building up the confidence in the dog which will make her want to bring the retrieved object, e.g. a ball, back to me. I am never quick to take the retrieve but want the dog to be happy holding the bumper near my body and accepting my hands. Often when the ball has been delivered I will give it back to the dog, to let her enjoy the prize a little longer and not feel that I am taking it away but actually sharing it with her. Once the dog has gained confidence in coming to me with the retrieved object, I can then build up the distance and work on a better delivery. Even with the delivery we can never expect it to be perfect from the beginning. Returning is a success to begin with, then wanting to give the object to you, then sitting with it, and finally sitting by your side, holding it until you take it. And even with these stages we often have to break them down into smaller success modules, gradually molding the dog into what we require.
If at any stage there is a problem such as dropping the retrieved ball, it is important to think about how to get the puppy to hold and carry it. That is a significant part of the job. Too often we are tempted to put the ball back forcibly into the puppy's mouth; however, a little teasing and fun play will get the results much quicker. With some dogs I have found that there are specific objects they want to carry; a tennis ball is one of the favorites of many dogs I have trained. So start the dog out with a tennis ball, and once she carries that, it is often easy to get her to carry other objects. The whole process is very positive, encouraging her to learn and develop by doing what comes naturally and what she enjoys. If we keep the built-in reward, train within the dog's ability, and increase the complexity gradually, she will develop her skills in a way which makes her look like a 'natural.' And nothing succeeds like success. In small steps we can show the dog what we want her to do and when she succeeds, we can let her know how pleased we are with what was achieved. Not just verbally but also with a SMILE! So often when a trainer is consistent with praise and recognition of success, the smile and laugh becomes synonymous with praise and dogs recognize this as another reward for a job well done.
Timing of rewards
There are certain aspects of training any dog that we must be aware of to get the best results. Rewards and the response is relative to the experiences the dog has of being rewarded or even being shown or hearing rewarding actions. A dog who constantly gets a ball thrown may not see it as a reward, may get bored with the exercise, and/or become so excited by it that all control and training is impossible. Constant verbal chatter and praising the dog may cloud real praise when it is actually given for a job well done. Verbal praise in dog training has to be applied at the right time and the right intensity to suit the situation and the dog. Praise has to mean something and be recognized by the dog for what it is - a reward for doing right and an encouragement to continue doing it. For example, when teaching a puppy to retrieve, the first thing you want her to do is pick up something. So, praise her the moment she puts her head down to pick it up. If she does not always want to return to you with the retrieve, praise her the moment she turns towards you and then encourage her to come. Too often we wait until the whole exercise has been completed and the puppy has gotten back by our side before we say 'Good job.' Give praise the moment the pup is doing what you want. When the puppy begins doing this action naturally, the praise can be phased out and other actions you are trying to train can then receive the encouraging praise.
If a dog experiences rewards prior to a training session then the session means nothing. If you want to encourage a dog to retrieve a ball or a bumper do not leave one lying around the house all day for her to play with or just walk past. It will hold no interest, no mystique, and is not exciting when you decide to use it for training. Make training objects, such as bumpers, special. To get the best concentration from a dog, it is often advantageous to deny the dog any form of reward whether it is a ball, bumper, or even freedom for an hour or so before undertaking any training. Training and working with you should be the highlight of the day. This is where a crate or kennel is invaluable during the early days of training. Let the dog have a 'time out' for re-vitalization and an unstimulated break before training. Then, the moment the dog comes out to train, anything done with you will be fun and one hundred percent more enjoyable when compared to having nothing to do. I love to see dogs that come out of their 'home' wanting to be with you, asking 'What fun thing are WE going to do?', and wanting to win my praise and affection. They are responsive and their minds become blotting paper for learning, soaking up what we want to teach them.
Make training sessions short, productive and fun, help the dog to be successful and enjoy success. I know from experience you will enjoy your dog training far more also - that's our reward.