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Reward the right decision

Updated: May 30, 2022

I have to admit I am a crossover trainer. I hasten to add I have never used any severe aversives such as electric shock collars with my dogs, but I did start out my journey using check chains. It just never seemed right though and as my trainer would shout out yank that chain a bit harder to stop your dog, I really couldn't do it.

I remember attending a gun dog course where the trainer told me to flick my dog's nose to stop him taking a piece of food from my hand, even though he wasn't even trying to take it as I had already taught him a strong leave cue. The trainer became quite irate with me because I wouldn't do as she said. Why on earth would I want to flick my dogs nose if he wasn't doing anything? To show him I'm boss? I'm not his boss, I'm his partner and as such I treat him the way I would want to be treated with kindness and understanding. I reward the decision I believe is the right one but allow my dog to take his time to come to that decision.

As we learn more about dogs and they way they learn it becomes more and more apparent that allowing them time to make a decision and rewarding the right decision is by far the best way to teach them. They say patience is a virtue and this holds true when training animals.

Take the dog that is anxious in a new environment. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to help a lovely young dog and his owner. When they arrived I stood back and watched as the owner repeatedly said "ah ah" and pulled him back as he tried to take in his surroundings. I allowed this to carry on for a few minutes and then stepped in and asked the owner to allow her dog to go forward and sniff the ground, gaining valuable information for himself. After a couple of minutes her dog looked back at her - now she needs to mark and reward which she did. Thankfully her timing was very good and after a few minutes of allowing this behaviour and rewarding her dog for checking in he sat beside her and relaxed. It was that easy. He was allowed to take in his surroundings, think about it and make the decision that was best for him and his owner.

Another dog I saw recently was being nagged all the time and to make it worse the cues were inconsistent - "sit, sit, sit down, sit down there". On and on it went to the point where he simply switched off and totally ignored his owner. This obviously caused the owner to become frustrated and the relationship had broken down. The dog had basically had all rights to making any decisions taken away. So we stripped it back and the owner simply marked and rewarded any check in by the dog. Guess what, the dog started to offer checking in behaviour more regularly and chose to sit by the owner rather than being aloof. From there we rebuilt the relationship and reintroduced some basic cues alongside play that the owner felt were important. After a few weeks on a longline with the owner constantly rewarding check ins they were finally able to enjoy walks off lead playing games along the way.

I could go on and relate more and more stories. but I think you get the idea. Thankfully, most of the owners I work with realise their errors and notice a difference in their relationship with their dog. Some dogs will adapt quickly once they are allowed space and time to think it through, others may take longer. Consistency on the part of the handler will help. Of course it also depends on how ingrained the behaviour is and to some extent genetics and breed characteristics will play a part. But on the whole, allowing our dogs to make decisions and rewarding those we want to see repeated is a much more effective as well as humane way of teaching our dogs. Relationships are stronger and humans and canines are happier.

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