Training a dog is about controlling the reinforcement. So if you want to train your dog, you need to have a basic understanding of reinforcement and how it works.
Dogs don’t process information and learn the same way humans do. It serves as a disservice to dogs to expect them to think in complex human terms like “right” and “wrong.” Dogs, and all animals, repeat behaviours that are reinforcing for them. Think about what dogs like to do – sniffing a tree, for example. They do this because they learn so much from smelling smelly stuff.
Do you have a dog who nudges your hand when he wants a pat? Or a dog who barks or paws the door when he wants to be let outside? Maybe your dog pulls like a sled dog when he wants to go sniff a tree or greet another dog? These are all examples of a dog who has learned to do something that gets him what he wants. If you froze in your tracks every time your dog tried to drag you up to meet another dog, over time your dog would stop pulling on the leash to get to where he wants to go.
When we reinforce with food, it’s a way of manufacturing a situation where a behaviour we would like to see more frequently – such as not jumping on people – becomes a more reinforcing behaviour. However, if your dog jumps on people and every once in a while someone laughs and welcomes this type of greeting, it becomes difficult to distinguish the behaviour of jumping on people because it becomes like a slot machine for your dog – he will jump on people because every once in a while, it pays off with fussing and attention.
It’s nearly impossible to completely control every, single outcome of your dog’s behaviour. Some mornings when you take your dog for a walk, you may be running behind schedule. So rather than putting on the brakes every time he pulls on leash, you let him pull on the leash so you get through your walk quickly. The secret to training success lies in two key concepts:
- Introduce the behaviour – in this case, not pulling on leash – in situations like a dog class where you are able to control the outcomes until the behaviour becomes strong.
- Think “consistent.” If you are able to maintain your desired criteria – I stop moving as soon as the dog pulls on the leash – 70% of the time, you’re gonna be ok.
So, why use food as a reinforcement?
Because food is typically very high on your dog’s list of reinforcers, food can be easily transported with you (if your dog’s idea of a life reward is being allowed to sniff a fire hydrant, you can’t take the fire hydrant with you) and food allows you to get a lot of reinforcement for a behaviour in quick succession.
Initial training should ideally be done with food. It allows you to build a deep reinforcement history, quickly. For example, value for being on your left side when on leash. Feed ten cookies for position in 30 seconds and, BOOM! You’re already well on your way to building value for your left side.
Also, initial training should be started in a “low distraction” environment – like your basement, backyard or at a dog class. Low distractions means things you might use a life rewards such as fire hydrants aren’t handy.
What are some good food rewards?
Kibble is often a great food reward if you’re training in your home, but you may need a higher value food reinforcement if you are in the backyard or in a dog class.
Every dog is different but here are some common food rewards:
- Rollover food rolls, cut up into pea-sized pieces.
- Freeze dried liver or chicken.
- Zuke’s brand Minis.
You will have a good idea whether your dog finds your food rewards reinforcing if he stays engaged with you. If he chooses to wander away, you may need to try another food reinforcement.
There are lots of ways to improve Leash Manners but the first step should always be the same – build value for walking on your left, or right, side. I prefer for my dogs to walk on my left, but if you like your dogs to walk on your right just switch up the exercise.
With your dog standing on your left side, drop your hand down and feed your dog a treat or piece of kibble. It’s important you hold your hand stationary, so that you communicate in the clearest possible way where you want your dog to be.
If your hand moves around when you deliver the treat, you create a position that is open to interpretation. If it helps, hook your thumb into the belt loop of your pants to keep your hand stationary.
Do this 20 times a day for a week. I promise you, if you do it right, your dog will start to choose to spend more time on your left side.
Around Day 3 or 4, Challenge the Learning. Test if you are, in fact, building value for the left side by taking one or two steps forward. Does your dog move with you? If he does, great! If he doesn’t, that just tells you that you need to spend more time building value for the left side. You can also evaluate these factors that may be impacting what your progress:
- How much formal training does your dog have? If your dog has little, or no, formal training he may take a little more time learning this behaviour.
- What are you using for reinforcement? Maybe kibble isn’t interesting enough for your dog. Try something more interesting like freeze dried liver or cut up hot dogs.
- What are your mechanics like? If you are not feeding consistently in the same place, you may be making it harder for your dog to understand what behaviour is getting paid.
Here’s a short video clip of Step 1 of Better Leash Manners.
If you went to puppy class you have likely already done some impulse control training. Hold a treat in your hand and close your hand to form a fist. Let your dog or puppy sniff, lick and paw your fist, and eventually he will give up. Be patient, some dogs can be persistent. The moment your dog stops, open your hand and let him have the cookie. My experience is that even the most persistent dogs will demonstrate some impulse control after three to five trials.
Do a few more trials to make sure you have a strong behaviour. Note that the “cue” for impulse control at this stage is your closed fist. We’ll add some difficulty by offering your dog an opened hand with the treat on your outstretched palm. If your dog makes a move to get the cookie, close your fingers around the treat. Since the fist is a picture your dog is familiar with, he will likely resist and when he pulls back, you can open your palm again.
We’re going to change things up a bit here – instead of giving your dog the cookie in your hand, reward with another treat given from your other hand. Do a few more trials. Even with the cookie held out on your outstretched palm your dog should be actively resisting grabbing the cookie. Now is the time to add a cue to the behaviour you are building.
Adding a cue to the behaviour.
1. Say your verbal cue – “leave it” or “wait” are common ones.
2. Hold out the cookie in your open palm.
3. If your dog resists grabbing the cookie, mark the correct behaviour with a click, or “yes” and give him a treat with your other hand.
This is the foundation of your impulse control training. Now transfer this behaviour to more challenging scenarios. Can your dog resist a treat when it’s on the floor? When you toss it on the floor? The addition of motion makes this a bigger challenge for your dog. How about sitting and waiting when the door is being opened? Or sitting and waiting patiently while putting on his collar and leash before going for a walk? You can see that once you’re aware of impulse control, it is evident everywhere. Being aware of it makes it reinforceable.
Teach your dog that a more patient response to what he wants is a behaviour that is reinforceable. The great part is that your dog tells you what he wants the most at a given moment – so you can use that as your reward.
Build your dog’s impulse control slowly, in small, achievable steps. This is a critical foundation skill for your dog to master. A dog who puts aside what he wants and defers to you won’t happen overnight but it will be worth the work you put in.