Motivational training: what is it, why does it work and how can it be used effectively? There are many styles of training and several methods to achieve your training goals. One promises to be fun while achieving lifelong success, a happy dog, and a healthy human-dog bond. This wonderful way of training is done by motivating your dog to repeat the behaviours you want in his daily life.
While knowing that motivating our dogs works best, it is also important to understand why. Many methods of training can create new behavioural problems while seeming to correct the current ones. Using motivational training makes it almost impossible to make things worse, and, when done correctly, is guaranteed to strengthen the bond you have with your dog. Dogs learn best by being shown what behaviours work and result in good things. Healthy patterns, good timing and predictability are the pieces you need to put the greatest of all training puzzles together. 1 + 2 = 3, 4 + 5 = 9, if a dog can count on this being true every time, and 3 & 9 are wonderful things, a dog will be sure to add a 2 when presented with a 1, and add a 5 when presented with a 4 every chance he gets.
Using the above idea of patterns, timing, and predictability, we can better understand why some methods are bound to make matters worse in the long run. For example, when a dog pulls towards another dog or child out of excitement from across the street and each time he does so he gets a correction resulting in pain of further restriction, he will start to predict that when seeing the dog or child, a correction is coming which leads to pain and frustration. Child + Pull = Correction, therefore don't add the Pull? Likely not, at least not long term. A dog's instinctual actions, such as pulling to get something good, are just natural responses without thought until we make it an item for him to think about. So, if we do not make the pulling behaviour a conscious action through other means such as when we teach si or down, he will not be thinking about the pulling as an item. Therefore, in our dog's mind, Child + Correction = Pain/Frustration. As he is skilled at learning patterns, he now knows that when the child is around, Correction is added, which predicts Pain/Frustration. Do we really want our dogs seeing another dog, child or adult and think of the pain that they will lead to? I certainly do not. This means that at some point in the future, the child who my dog was once so excited to meet, will trigger him to bark, growling, or possibly lunge to make it go away. The sooner it goes away the more likely we can stop the corrections, right? Well, unfortunately, that is how our pet dog thinks, and one of the reasons we are seeing a rise in on-leash reactivity is normally social dogs.
So now that we know this, it is time to start thinking about what we want our dogs to add to 1 and 4 and what 3 and 9 need to be to motivate our dogs to connect the puzzle pieces! Regardless of your dog's training history, it is never too late to start using motivational training. So let's begin...
Starting this process of knowing how can be a bit tricky at first, but there is a nice, easy exercise to get you started. First, you will need a way to perfect your timing and to be sure you are rewarding the right behaviour. In order to do this, we need something to communicate this to our dogs. We will need a marker, a sound that lets our dogs know exactly what they did right and when. This way we can take our time in getting the reward and presenting it to our dogs. By doing this, rather than simply luring our dogs into position, we will have them think, select the right behaviour, and then the reward appears. This order of things makes it more about the action and less about the reward which is often a food treat. With good timing, we are not destined to rely on the food being present to make the behaviour happen once our dogs have successfully learned the behaviour. This makes it easy to lose the food treats sooner rather than later. A good marker is one that is short and sweet such as a clicker (a tool that makes a click sound and can be purchased at any pet shop) or the word "YES". Once we have selected our marker, here is how a great starting game goes.
I recommend dedicating one to two weeks for which you will pick up your clicker as soon as you walk in the door and begin to interact with your dog. Every time your dog offers you any behaviour that you like and would like to see repeated, click (or say "YES") and then follow the click with a yummy treat. This can be used to reinforce anything from sitting for greetings, waiting at the door to go outside, laying on his bed, to housetraining. The general idea of this exercise is to create a fun and healthy relationship with your dog that lets him know you are watching and acknowledging his good behaviours.
This is a great way to get the ball rolling and have your dog begin to offer you all the wonderful things you love about him. Once this starts, you are going to notice that your dog will be more attentive and ready to make you smile on a daily basis. What could be better than that?!
And now, here are a few easy tips to make training with food effective. Mix some kibble in a jar with some smelly freeze-dried liver or parmesan cheese. This way you can use some of your dog's meals for training instead of using lots of high-calorie treats. Feed your dog his meal in a kong or other food toys. This will increase food value as well as burn mental energy while he eats. The more mental energy burned while eating or training, the less energy he has to think up unwanted behaviours. Keep training sessions short (5-10 minutes at a time), and repeat a couple of times each day. Remember that a click or a "YES" is a promise to your dog that he will be rewarded for his good behaviour.
Training our dogs can be a fun and pleasant experience for all! Beware and understand what pattern you are teaching your dog, encourage the behaviours you like, practice a little each day, and have fun! The human-dog bond is one that many of us crave and cannot live without. Knowing how to create the right connection with our dogs is often what we struggle with. Struggle no longer, try the recommended exercise and be prepared to be amazed how quickly your dog can learn to do the right thing!
I promise you, once you try it, you will never go back!
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