Are you doing things in the wrong order? Many of my clients are when I first meet them.
“Honey, I’m going to take the dog for a walk so he can go potty.”
“The dog is barking at me and won’t leave me alone. I think he needs more exercise.”
“Go get the treats so Fido will come when I call him.”
If these phrases sound familiar, I have a training hack that’s going to make life with your pup so much easier.
The good news is you’re doing all the right things. There’s just one small problem… you’re doing them in the wrong order! The result is that your dog takes 40 minutes to pee outside, doesn’t know how to relax, and will only come to you if you’re holding treats in your hand. With one small change, all of these problems will disappear.
By the time I meet with clients for the first time, most of them have a basic but incomplete understanding of positive reinforcement. They know that dogs need to eat, food is readily available, and it’s easy to use kibble during training sessions. One of the first things I teach clients is the importance of expanding the reinforcement menu. In order to do things in the right order, you have to understand what reinforcement is – and what it isn’t. Hint: It’s not sparkle dust, rainbows, and good intentions!
Reinforcement is any consequence that happens immediately after a behavior occurs that will increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. Your pup is being reinforced all the time whether you’re aware of it or not. My job is to make you aware of it! We will find everything your dog wants and needs and provide these “real life reinforcers” immediately after your dog does something you like. Once you understand that reinforcement does not just mean food you’ll automatically stop doing things in the wrong order.
Let’s take a look at three scenarios through that lens.
“Honey, I’m going to take the dog for a walk so he can go potty.” In this scenario, the dog has learned that when he eliminates, the walk ends. That’s no fun!! Fido learns to “hold it” so he can stay out longer. This is the opposite of the client’s goal! Imagine if the dog peed FIRST, and THEN went on a short jaunt around the block (or a long adventure). That’s a dog who will run to the curb and pee immediately when it gets outside, even if it’s 15 degrees out!
“The dog is really excited and won’t leave me alone, I think he needs more exercise.” Oh boy. Variations on this theme include “He barks at me constantly.” Here Fido has learned that running around like a lunatic (or barking excessively) results in the humans stopping whatever boring thing they’re doing to pay attention and play with him.
He loves attention! He loves to play! While he might be temporarily satiated and tired from a bout of play, the dog is learning that ramping up and becoming aroused makes play happen. The humans are actually increasing the annoying attention seeking behaviors in their dog that they ultimately wanted to see less of. Imagine instead that you initiate play sessions only when you noticed your pup relaxing quietly? Your pup will still get his needs met, but will also learn to be happy to hanging out on his own when Mom or Dad is busy.
“Go get the treats so Fido will come when I call him.” In this scenario, the dog is learning that “food in hand” is part of the cue for the recall behavior. The cue is no longer “Fido, Come!”… it’s “Fido, Come If I Am Holding Food!” While I do believe that every successful recall should be reinforced, the food (or toy, or game of “chase the human!”) should be produced AFTER the dog arrives. These owners are teaching their dog to ignore them if they are not holding food. Whoops!! That’s not what they wanted to teach at all! By setting up the environment a bit differently beforehand (hiding treats/toys around the house out of reach or in different pockets/bags when outside) this issue can be eliminated.