One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to get your dog to listen without the need for constant treats. The answer – implement an intermittent schedule of reinforcement (i.e. reward your dog randomly for things she has learned and understands).
To better understand this, think about a person at the slot machine of their favorite casino. Humans spend hours sitting there, putting in money and pulling the lever, without being rewarded with a payout, all because they know a payout is coming EVENTUALLY, even if not for them.
This is exactly the thinking we want to instill in your dog. She will follow your instructions even without a reward because she knows one is on the horizon, eventually.
Please note – when teaching new commands, consistency and repetition are key! So when you start “sit”, you will likely be rewarding every time to build a pattern with your dog that we really like this behavior, and there is something in it for him if he listens. Randomly rewarding is a tool we use down the road, when your dog understands the behavior you are asking for.
So how do you do it?
For commands your dog knows reliably well (think you ask him to “sit” ten times and he complies without hesitation at least eight of those ten times) begin to randomize the rewards. Some “sits” receive a treat, some receive praise or a pet. Better yet, mix in “life rewards” (walks, dinner, you tossing the ball one more time) for following that command.
It is important when doing this to go against our human instincts and not follow a set pattern of rewarding (humans are so predictable!). Rather then rewarding every other time your dog follows a command (pups catch on to this very quickly), mix it up, so he may get two rewards in a row, then not another for the following three commands.
And while you’re at it, get those treats out of your hands! When my client’s pups are responding well we move to putting treats around the house in various locations. Then, when we ask the pup to “down” and she complies, we praise and go to the nearest treat location for a reward. Now your pup is figuring out just because there isn’t anything in your hand does not necessarily mean no reward!
Try these tips to take your training to the next level, and have a more responsive pup, sans treats!
Thunder and fireworks and motorcycles, oh my! Is your dog nervous about noises? Help them restore their confidence.
Desensitize and counter condition
- Have high value treats ready.
- Start by making a noise that your dog is afraid of, but at a very quiet level and immediately reward your dog. You can readily find audio of sounds like thunder and fireworks online.
- As she is calm with the low level noise gradually make the sound louder, stopping if she won’t eat or starts to panic, and going back to a softer sound.
- Make it a priority to expose puppies to new sights and sounds while young. This will decrease the chance of him developing a fear down the road
- If you can’t avoid the noise (think thunderstorms and fireworks) be sure your dog has a safe place like a crate or small room he can escape to if needed.
- Use the radio or TV to drown out the noise
- Provide a high value, long lasting treat (stuffed Kong, favorite chew) to occupy him
- Try a wrap/shirt or natural supplements that are specifically designed to calm your dog
- If she is extremely stressed discuss medication with your vet
Unsure owners often ask me if it is OK to play tug with their dogs. Will it lead to behavior problems? Teach the pup to be aggressive?
Done correctly, tug is a fun and appropriate way to interact with your dog, and can burn energy, increase your bond and be used as a reward for a command well done.
So go ahead, enjoy a tug session with your dog, just follow these rules!
- Rule 1 – You initiate the game and you keep the toy. Your tug toy should be long to discourage grabbing close to hands (see rule #2), brought out for tug sessions and put away when the game is over. You keeping custody of the toy is especially important for pushy dogs who may not want the game to end!
- Rule 2 – If your dog grabs your skin or clothes (even by accident) the game ends. Take the toy and walk away. You can try again after a few minutes.
- Rule 3 – Teach your dog to drop it. Tug should only be played in a controlled manner. Frequently during the game stop pulling and ask your dog to drop it (you can show him a treat at first until he gets the idea). When he lets go ask him to sit or down, and restart the tug session as a reward when he complies. If you dog gets out of control or begins to jump on you or grab at the toy before you have offered it end the game temporarily.
*A note on growling. Growling is a normal part of play but sometimes can be difficult to interpret. If you dog begins to growl during a tug session take his overall body language into account. Is he happy and bouncy, with a relaxed body? He’s just having fun.
While ghosts and goblins may be your thing many dogs find all the ghoulish decor and costumes of Halloween a bit frightening! I can only imagine what they must be thinking… For a month of the year the whole world looks different and there are sketchy characters lurking everywhere! It’s their job to let you know when something is not right and most of them believe body parts dangling from trees firmly falls into the “wrong” category. Try these tips to help your dog cope with this spooky day.
- While walking your dog around the neighborhood encourage them to investigate new decor by letting them give a sniff. Treats work wonders to get them close to something they think they should avoid!
- After the initial exploration many dogs calm down. If you pup is still worked up spend a few minutes near the “scary” items while feeding their favorite treats to create a positive association.
- If you dog will be exposed to people in costumes start by acclimating them to your family in theirs. Keep interactions with you in costume positive by giving treats, attention and playtime while donning your masks.
- Refresh your dog on the leave it command (show a treat, say leave it and reward when your dog doesn’t touch the item and backs away). This will come in handy if your pup outside during trick or treating (think candy on the sidewalk).
- For dogs who will be sporting costumes of their own acclimate them at home first. Remember to keep the experience positive with lots of treats!
- When selecting costumes for your dog look for those that do not cover her face or eyes. If your dog is less than thrilled about being dressed up let him go as himself this year!
- If you dog will be greeting trick or treaters keep a baby gate across the front door to keep your dog and those at the door safe! Reward good door greeting behavior such as sitting calmly.
- Last but not least, make sure candy is well out of reach. Chocolate and certain kinds of sweeteners are poisonous to your pooch!
You may or may not have heard my lecture on always securing your dog in the car. Yes, I know your dog wants to ride shotgun but it’s not safe! No, not even around the block! I was recently in a car accident with my hounds in the car (trust me they fared better than I did) and can now back that spiel up with some personal experience.
Whether with a seat belt harness, a crate or a special barrier that keeps your dog securely in the “hatch” of your car, it is vital that you restrain your pooch when joyriding. Not only could a sudden impact launch your dog causing him injury but dogs are understandably shaken up in these circumstances and most will try to escape the car by any means possible (think an open window). Securing your dog also ensures authorities will be able to help you if you are injured; your dog may become protective of you in a scary situation.
If you and your dog are in an accident here are some helpful tips my vet shared on what to watch for:
- Obvious signs of injury such as limping, bleeding etc
- Excessive panting. Panting can indicate pain but is also a sign of anxiety which is a normal reaction to a stressful situation. If your dog’s panting does not subside see your vet.
- Bruising – especially on the belly which can indicate internal bleeding
- Temperature – feel the ears to ensure one is not excessively hot or cold
- Inability to focus eyes – try having your dog follow a treat to test this
- Pupil dilation. Again, this can indicate fear as well but should subside quickly in that case. Prolonged pupil dilation calls for a vet visit immediately.
After an accident your dog may be fearful about car rides. Remedy this with short trips around the block and provide your pup with a chew or Kong to work on while you are on the road. This will help rebuild positive associations with car rides.
Safe travels to you and your dog!