It seems so simple. Just use treats, praise, or maybe a fun toss of a ball or frisbee, and your dog will show up to work as happy as can be. If that were the case, it would be pretty tough to find a professional dog trainer who owns or advocates for e-collars, choke collars, and other forced-compliance tools.
But they are everywhere, and they have their place. Yet, forcing a dog to do something is not the same as figuring out how to positively teach a dog to produce a specific behavior. The latter is always better, and it’s far more possible with most dogs than folks think.
The key is understanding what rewards are important to dogs and why.
Experts aren’t in agreement on when domestication first started between man and wild canids. The best guesses are that one or two events, from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, kickstarted this wild partnership. Whether our modern dogs stem from one event or multiple doesn’t matter. What does matter is that those early relationships are the result of symbiotic needs for both man and dog—food and protection.
Dogs served as both in those early days. It is believed that not only were they a source of protein in tough times but that canines served as an early detection system for approaching predators. They proved their worth in other ways over thousands of years by eventually becoming integral to our hunting needs, herding needs, and probably much more.
Throughout this process, we not only developed better and better ways to communicate with dogs, but also rewarded the dogs that provided us some benefit. If you know anything about dog breeding (and the probably not-so-gentle nature of humans 20,000 years ago), it’s pretty safe to assume we unintentionally promoted bloodlines from dogs that were better at directly benefiting us.
This is alive and well today in many breeds, as is the gene-deep desire to work for a reward.
Food is a great reward for dogs, but treat training is a short-window deal. With puppies, a handful of kibble can be an amazing step toward fostering eye contact, establishing a working relationship, and laying down the basics of obedience. After a few weeks, or at most a month or two, treat training loses its luster and becomes a liability, though. No one wants a dog that will only come to heel or retrieve a pheasant if you shake the treat bag for them.
The transition out of food to praise, and then a bigger reward, is when training should really take off. For my dogs, this means retrieving. I run Labs, and I seek out bloodlines of dogs that should want to retrieve over and over until they physically can’t. This makes my job as a trainer easy because I know exactly what kind of reward my dog needs to keep learning new tasks. Whether we are working on simple obedience or hand signaling triple blind retrieves, the reward is always that they get to pick up a bumper and bring it back.
But what if you don’t run high-drive, well-bred retrievers? The key is to find out what makes your dog tick. What does your dog absolutely love? Is it a rope toy? Is it a ball? Is it a free-for-all walk through the CRP grass where it can stretch its legs and run for 10 minutes? Whatever it is, while you’re socializing your pup and doing some early training, figure it out. Then use it as a reward for showing up to work.
Let’s say your dog loves tennis balls. Don’t let your dog have a tennis ball (or retrieve one) until you have some other drill you want to work on. Maybe it’s as simple as place training, heel, or whatever. If you have your dog’s attention for a few minutes, and it’s giving you real effort, the reward should be to bust out the tennis ball and give it a toss or two. Then the tennis ball goes away. A reward should be special, and it should signal that you’re going to ask something of your dog.
If he delivers, he gets a reward.
You might be thinking, why go through this when I can just get an e-collar? There’s a place for e-collars, and it is after a young dog has demonstrated that it truly understands commands but decides not to obey them. A lot of folks jump the gun on this out of frustration, which generally leads to bad things like collar-wise dogs or dogs that have low-level PTSD from the invisible threat of electro-shocking due to improper correction timing.
If you want a dog that is going to work with and for you, then you have to figure out what its reward really needs to be. You can force compliance through fear of punishment, but you’ll never have the trust you want. Instead, figure out what your dog wants to work for, and then use that as a reward for training sessions and good behavior.