There are accepted principles of learning which, if applied properly, can make the training of dogs easier and more efficient without the use of intimidation, pain or punishment. Positive reward training is based on the principle that any behaviour is more likely to reoccur if it is immediately followed by a reward.
Think of your dog's special training word as a marking word that says to your dog: "What you just did will be rewarded." The same principles and concepts are used in "clicker" training where the treat is paired with the sound of the clicker. However, a word can't be lost, left at home or dropped in the snow, and it doesn't need a third hand. Just remember to keep your marking word short and sweet to keep the timing sharp.
Some words that are easy to remember are "yes" and "right." Using the words "good," "girl," "boy" or "dog" will mean that others may inadvertently reward your dog for things you may not like (i.e. jumping up) and the significance of the word will be watered down by repetition during praise. A training word or reward mark does not replace praise--it precedes praise and marks the behaviour we were looking for.
Using a reward mark also helps you to establish a clear means of communicating with the dog. Often during training we become fuzzy saying "that's it, good boy" when we are really not getting what we want, but are really just hoping? encouraging? pleading? This only muddles the training. Remember English is our language, not the dogs'. Keep down the verbiage and let the dog concentrate. Mark what you want clearly and precisely, follow with reward and praise.
Some of the advantages of using a special word:
- Timing: It pinpoints the exact thing the dog is getting the reward for
- Distance: It bridges the time gap between when the behaviour is performed at a distance and the reward is given
- Fun: The dog listens for the word from us that brings them reward, not just the food
- Variety: The reward word can bring treats, toys, free play, and all other good things in life that gets the dog away from being "treat dependent"
- Other people can use the word if we teach them how
Using food as a reinforcer also has its advantages:
- Most dogs can be easily motivated to earn a food reward
- The reward can be made very small and eaten quickly to facilitate many successful repetitions in a short time frame
- Food treats can be varied to appeal to dogs' love of novelty
- Can be easily carried in a pocket or pouch
- Motivation can be increased by training before meal times
- The scent of the food can be used as a lure
- Refusal to eat a treat can be a stress indicator
- Food rewards can be readily given by others, including children
Your dog's special training word is first paired with a treat. Say the word and then proffer a food treat. This is repeated many times. You will know it is working when your dog startles and looks for a treat upon hearing his word.
Starting with commands that your dog already knows, use the word to mark the correct behaviour. Example: Say the word sit. If the dog responds correctly, say its marking word and then move to give the dog a treat. Try not to mark and reward simultaneously.
Dogs learn by anticipating, or following sequences. For example, a young puppy quickly learns that the rattle of his dinner dish means food is on its way. If we pick up the leash, the dog shows excitement because he knows a walk is next. By the way, they also learn to manipulate us in the same way--grabbing a shoe usually results in an exciting game of chase on a dull rainy day. Take advantage of the dog's learning patterns by thinking of training as a sequence:
Command or hand signal > dog responds > marking word > reward & praise
Tips for Training Sessions:
- Train in a quiet area when teaching a new exercise.
- Short sessions of 10-15 minutes each several times a day. Better to keep the dog looking forward to more than to drill a point
- Give commands once, ignore the dog and do not reward for incorrect responses. Wait a few moments and try again.
- Training is fun. When training is not going well, quit and come back to it later. Always end on a good note.
Reprinted with permission from Renee deVilliers, All About Dogs (416/410-4347)