The Dog Trainer's Secret November 2016

Have you ever wondered why professional trainers are so good at getting reliable behaviour in animals? Have you ever noticed your dog will do anything for your trainer in class but when you get home they suddenly seem to have suffered hearing loss?

I will let you in on our (not so secret) secret. The reason dogs listen to us so well is because we provide consequences.

As Dr. Susan Friedman so eloquently puts it, “Behaviour doesn’t flow like a fountain, it is a tool to produce consequences.” Which is another way of saying "dogs do what works." Trainers manipulate this system to ensure that the behaviours we like “work” for the dog and that the ones we don’t like don’t.

These dogs know that holding a sit stay while I take photos of them is going to pay off.

When I take my dogs for an off-leash walk (which on my 13.5 acre property is every walk) I ALWAYS bring my treat pouch. If I can’t find it, I take the time to search for it. If it is empty, I take the time to fill it. I simply NEVER go out without it and guess what? My dogs (who didn’t used to) now have amazing off-leash skills. They make an effort to stay close to me, they check in with me on their own initiative, and they recall on a dime when called. It’s worth their while to listen to me because I pay them well to do so. That doesn’t mean I use treats on every single walk, but I am always prepared to provide reinforcement if I feel its warranted as well as keeping up a sufficient variable schedule of reinforcement to ensure the behaviours I like stay reliable.

You might think that needing to bring treats every time you take the dogs out is annoying or impractical; however let me ask you this: Are you able to remember your wallet, keys and cell phone every time you go out? It’s just as easy to get into the habit of bringing a small pouch, fanny pack or ziplock bag of snacks every time you take your dog for a walk. There are different brands of treat pouches, some of which are quite stylish, that you can keep clipped to your leash, waist or sling over your shoulder (check out these, these or these).

My favourite and most used treat pouch with my recall whistle attached.

You might worry that if you train with food rewards your dog will become reliant on them. This is absolutely true, they will be, but you needn't worry because ALL behaviour is always reliant on consequences. If you choose not to use food (or other rewards such as toys, access to outside, the removal of rewards/time outs etc.) in training then you will likely be reliant on force and/or the threat of force (yelling, leash jerking, shocking etc.). Whichever side of the training spectrum you gravitate towards (I strongly recommend the former) you will ALWAYS be reliant on providing consequences. Besides, we have to feed our dogs every day anyway, so why not make some of that meal contingent on behaviours we like?