When I talk to other trainers or watch them working with different dogs I often realize how lucky I have been with most of the dogs I have had the pleasure of owning or working with. Lucky, in that most of them have been motivated dogs or easy to motivate. Maybe it is the choice of breeds that has made the difference, or the lines of a specific breed or maybe it is because I have always looked creatively at ways to use their natural motivations in training and not depend on food rewards.
Brought up as a hunting dog trainer, the ‘golden rule’ was, do not give food treats during training. The word more commonly used was ‘bribe’. The main reason was that a dog could quickly learn to drop a dummy to collect a treat at the end of a retrieve exercise and any good ‘hunter’ will tell you, we want a dog to hold until asked to release. The lack of food treats never seemed to be a problem. When one was given, it would be at the end of a training session, and was merely a ‘feel good’ action, not associated by the dog to the training. So I used other ways to reward my dogs for what they did and developed techniques to encourage them to perform as I wanted them to. I learned to provide a reason for doing things – a motivator, a stimulus, an influence, and an incentive to do what I was asking. I find it interesting that as an ex University Management Lecturer-Professor that motivation in people is often discussed but it is a word I rarely hear discussed in dogs.
When training dogs we often talk about willingness and trainability. Some talk about a dog wanting to please, others state that a dog is only pleasing itself. Whatever the interpretation, all I am interested in is providing training where the dog performs in a way that pleases me and in doing so gains pleasure itself. Knowledge of breeds and breeding has to be a prerequisite of anyone who wants a dog for a specific purpose. Some breeds have a natural learning and intellectual ability, others may be willing but have no aptitude for the task required and some will have the ability but no willingness, no desire to learn or to please, and a few will have neither. Of course there are varying degrees of willingness and aptitude and that is what makes dog training so interesting and a challenge, every dog is different and will require differing approaches.
Where both willingness and ability is high you find dogs that want to learn and are easier to train. They almost demand training and work, and perform best by introducing variety and new challenges. We may train through repetition but with the ‘high fliers’ you need to recognise early their abilities and balance the repetitive training with a variety of challenging games, exercises and problems to stimulate their intelligence and motivational needs. But be careful as on occasions these positive motivations can begin to work against you. Only this morning I had a very good example. I have a fourteen-week-old male Labrador puppy that my wife and I bred from two dogs I brought over from England . They both have excellent working pedigrees and good temperaments, which have resulted in a litter of pups that are great hunting training and companion ‘raw’ material. We have done a few little retrieving exercises in confined areas but nothing too difficult. This week I decided I would start giving a few longer retrieves in the garden and begin to introduce sit and stay while I threw the retrieve. Roper, (that’s his name), took no time in deciding that this is what life was made for. He is so willing and so easy to do things with because he has already realized that by doing what I ask or guide him into, he gets to chase, to carry and to enjoy the experience. There is no doubt that because of his breed much of what I do is self-rewarding, retrieving being the obvious self-rewarding action. Now my problem is that every time we go out, he walks by my heel watching closely expecting to train. Now why should this be a problem?? Because sometimes I want him to go out to eliminate and unless he is bursting, the drive to work with me makes him overlook this fact. Although he has been taught to eliminate on cue, he really is so keen to work (train) he is overlooking what I am asking. So now, I am waiting and not even attempting to train until he has at least urinated. Slowly, he is getting the idea that the quicker he goes the quicker we get to train. If I didn’t do this the potential for accidents in the house or stopping for a ‘pee’ in a the middle of training exercise is guaranteed to increase.
If we consider what a dog wants from life, what motivates it to do certain behaviors, we can then recognize what will be a reward for doing what we show or ask it to do. Most of my other dogs have been hunting dogs English Springer Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels but I have found that even with my occasional terrier, German shepherd and poodle, retrieving, carrying and ‘killing’ an object has been very strong motivators.
So often dog trainers rely on food, and when ordinary kibble is not tempting enough some trainers will ensure the dog is hungry or try even tastier morsels. But food is only one motivator and we should recognize that. Dogs are motivated to behave and perform in different way by varying stimuli. Fulfilling natural instincts, safety and security, avoiding discomfort, being part of a group or partnership, and doing things better than they have before. The most powerful ones are fulfilling natural instincts (self reward) and avoiding discomfort. The removal of an uncomfortable experience by carrying out an improved behavior is accelerated as a motivator if, following the successful action of the dog to remove that experience, you as a trainer heap on the motivating rewards – associated with praise and pleasure at a job well done.
In human activities I have found when athletes are pushed to the limits by coaches, and workers are pushed to their limits by managers and colleagues, they give their best when being correctly ‘driven’ and rewards come in a form very acceptable to them. A good coach and manager will create a sense of achievement and they want to do it again in the way that created that success. I often find dogs very similar, a correction, or a motivating pressure followed immediately by a recognizable reward will increase the willingness of the dog to do that action again in the improved way. The amount of pressure applied has always to be relative to the dog and the situation as too much pressure can be equally as demotivating as it could be motivating and also of course could create the wrong behavior change.
Equally, the same can be said of applying too strong a reward motivator or sometimes too often a reward motivator. I have seen retrievers become retrieving ‘fools’ and very difficult to control because the motivation to do the activity is higher than the willingness to obey related commands. Dogs that lack control and do not wait before being sent for a retrieve is an obvious one – unsteadiness. Police dogs that will not let go of the arm on command once they have been given the instruction to attack or will not ‘stand off’ when an agitator stands still but continue the attack.
Recently in England I was fortunate enough to be invited to the British Police Dog Nationals and really enjoyed not just watching the dogs but spending time with first class trainers. The training of these dogs for sniffer, tracking or criminal work is centred on using their natural instincts and self-rewarding behaviors to train them. With the sniffer dogs – mainly Labradors and spaniels it was the retrieve and love of carrying objects and with the dogs doing criminal work, German Shepherds and a Malinois, the action of shake and tug. All the training centred around seek and find, chase and hold.
One police trainer explained how he used tennis balls to provide the reward for his dogs in sniffer work. After teaching his dogs to retrieve, he teaches them to recognize various scents within the retrieve objects. The next step is fascinating in that the dog is required not to ‘retrieve’ the object but to just find and indicate the position of the search substance (with explosive devices this is essential). The trainer now introduces a tennis ball to teach the dog to indicate location. In training exercises, the moment the dog scents an item it is asked and guided into a sit, and a tennis ball that the dog already enjoys retrieving, is bounced along a shelf, table, window ledge or similar surface in the hand of the handler. As the dog sits and looks at the bounce, which is done above the already located substance, the ball is slowly allowed to drop on the floor for the dog to pick. This teaches the dog to sniff out a substance then sit and waits for the ball to appear. The dog learns to wait longer and longer for the ball to appear and eventually the ball is no longer dropped either given to the dog or the dog taken completely away from the area for his reward, a fetch and retrieve. This is a good example of teaching a dog to work, have patience and sit steadily when it finds a substance and then receive a delayed reward, which it recognizes as being for the work previously done. Steadiness is an essential part of training, not just in Police or hunting dog work, and this is one way of achieving it.
Later when we were discussing criminal work I brought up the problem of control with high drive dogs. The prime example was when a dog was sent for a running ‘criminal’ who then stood still – the stand off. The dog was expected in such a situation to abort the attack and to circle the suspect. More than one dog could not resist the temptation and just had to have a little ‘bite’ – or two – before circling, finding it more rewarding to do what it wanted, rather than what it was trained to do. This is where the control has to be so effective and precise. What can you give a dog that is more rewarding, to stop it doing an activity that is the most rewarding of all?
Highly motivational behaviors can create intense focus and often the only way you can redirect that focus is with an aversive or distracting influence. The moment the unwanted action is stopped, rewarding motivators or the promise of rewarding motivators can be used to reinforce the new action. What we are doing is interrupting a focus and then redirecting it. If we take the example of a Police dog on the arm, we break the focus, ask for a new behavior, which is complied with because the dog is then waiting for the potential reward once more, which is to go on the arm again.
If we compare the two motivators we have to realize that the motivation to stop has to be greater than the motivation to continue, and an action that is very self-rewarding is more difficult to control especially with a dog that has developed a high drive. The Police Officers and I discussed this at great length and the training options available to them. I expressed my opinion that the most humane and effective way to provide the distraction and refocus for these dogs was through the use of an electronic remote trainer and we all concluded the remote trainer to be invaluable when used correctly. Today’s modern collars and their sophistication enables a trainer to provide different stimulation levels to either distract or avert a dog providing improved finesse with control never before available. It is a perfect piece of training equipment for use in high drive situations. The use of the collar becomes less and less very quickly until it may be phased out totally. But I was then given the disturbing news that the Chief Constables Association had just stopped the use of electronic remote trainers in the Police dog training program. This was a disappointment for the Police Dog Trainers because the vote by the majority of Chief Constables and trainers had been for retaining the e-collar. However due to political pressure it was decided to ban its use in the police force. It is extremely sad when emotional, political pressure can force leaders, inexperienced in dog training, to make a decision that goes against the advice of those who are professionals in their field. Although the collar was rarely used I believe that with the quality of dogs and officers I saw performing, education in the correct use of the collar would have created a higher level of motivation and control resulting in more efficient, precise and safe dog work for the handler, the public and the dog.
For these officers and myself creativity in training is essential for success. Using highly motivational activities makes dog-training fun, develops drive and correctly applied, changes and channels behavior. I personally find it creates a partnership between dog and trainer we both value as we work together and support each other. I recommend you search to find an activity that is highly motivational for your dog and be creative in using it within a training program. You and your dog will love it.