I used that headline to make a point. Any behavior that is rewarded will probably be offered again by the recipient of your reward. Handlers make a big mistake by using “praise” to increase the likelihood of a behavior repeating when they don’t define or evaluate praise from the dog’s point of view.
As soon as we try to define praise from our own perspective, we are already on shaky ground. We’ve all experienced a back handed compliment–it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Just as true for dogs as for us. Add to that, most of our mouth noises have little meaning to dogs until we associate different sounds with meaningful objects, smells and activities. Even then, picking up the leash means more than, “How about a walk?” If you’ve ever been irritated by by another trainer’s high pitched, weedling, “Goooood girrrrrrl” crooning next to you in a performance ring, you can at least admit that some praise is punishing. The only way to know if her dog feels the same way is to make note of what his response is. Many dogs learn to work for weird noises. But if he’s tolerating or avoiding it instead, it’s destructive to training goals.
If the weird noise has been consistently paired with treats, comfort or fun activities, it can be less destructive. But it’s still not a reward. It’s simply been counter conditioned–made to seem good. Now we are defining praise from the dog’s point of view. Whenever someone says “My dog is not motivated by treats” or “My dog works for pats on the head” he or she is exposing some ignorance of this volatile landscape. All dogs will work for food because without it they die. All dogs will work for relationships because without those they die. It’s just that treats and pats are not food and relationship.
If a targeted (desirable) behavior increases after a dog is exposed to the strange noise (praise) or the physical contact (patting), then the trainer is correct. These two responses from the trainer are perceived positively enough by the dog that he will change his behavior to receive them. Most often, we find out this is not the case. Not only is the behavior not increasing (in the absence of any other consequence) but the dog’s body language includes appeasing and avoidant behaviors such as squinting, looking away, lowering his head, low slight wag, compressing posture and even a raised paw. Essentially, dogs are begging for the “praise” to stop despite being willing to work through it. Now that’s a kind dog.
A relationship between a caretaker and a dog is often more than enough for a dog to offer correct responses to cues, once they know the cues. Dogs know we have the keys to the food and cars and can open doors. They know they belong to us and will work to protect the relationship. Some of the most well known dogs have trainers who proudly tell you they don’t use treats or praise or pats on the head. How is this possible? Because these dogs are often working dogs treated like a partner. These teams work together, eat together and shelter together. Those are consequences a dog will and always has worked for.
The problem for the pet dog is that these relationship structures may not exist. When you go to work all day, put the dog outside alone for exercise and feed your dog to suit your schedule you will need to pay him otherwise to care what you ask him to do. Some of us are motivated by a paycheck — dogs who will do anything for any kind of attention or any kind of snack. They are usually some kind of retrievers or spaniel. A few of us are lucky enough to have Borzoi who will sell a soul for meat. These dogs are easy to train. Easy, until a squirrel or a crow passes the training ring. In those moments you find out how much your dog will work for your “praise” or “treats”. Turns out, only a relationship is enough in those moments. Even then, many great relationships incorporate some forgiveness, after.
So there are two ways to solve the problem of choosing consequences. The first is to work, eat and shelter with your dog so that he cares what you want to do. These are the relationships we marvel at when we watch a good friend working a dog who checks in and performs well in trying circumstances. Sure this friend probably does hand out meat and give ear massages, even the occasional pat, but you’ll see a confident dog who appreciates the pay in addition to working with his person.
The second way is to evaluate your consequences more carefully. As a rule, dogs don’t appreciate a bump on the head or face. I often see trainers chuck a dog under the chin seemingly affectionately. How rude. Video tape a training session. This is easy with cell phones, panoramic and time lapse features. But if you have a helper, all the better. Evaluate the captured moments and have friends who have those beautiful working relationships do the same. Stop doing things your dog ignores or tolerates as if they are rewarding. They may not even be destructive to the training process but they truly are not helping your dog.
Find consequences your dog is actually attending to that significantly increase his attention and correct responses. If you have a great working relationship, your dog may work long hours just for time with you during and after. But paying him for exceptional work will increase it’s occurrence. If he needs to be paid, you already know what he prefers to do–run with the horses, go swimming (stop laughing Borzoi people-there is a Dock Diving Zoi!), play frisbee (okay, laugh now), or any of things he does when he’s not listening to you. Offer these activities as part of training. Pair them with words you can use as markers. Before you know it, your dog will care what you want him to do and the relationship you’ve been looking for will be yours.
There is nothing wrong with successively approximating a desired behavior in steps or back chaining or any scientifically proven teaching tools. But without a relationship these techniques can only take you so far. We all learn. We all work for pay. But at some point we do what we want to do. The greatest teacher and even offers of money will not get us to help a friend move on a holiday weekend unless it’s that one friend. You know, the one who calls you at 3 am and you don’t even mind. Be that friend for your dog. Know that when a squirrel runs through the ring on trial day, he’ll help you move. Or you’ll both forgive each other after because “Remember that time…..?”