Becoming the Center of Your Dog’s Universe

OR: How to motivate your dog to want to work for you

In the world of modern, science based dog training, we often hear people calling treats a “bribe”, or saying that they just want their dogs to work for them “because they should”. What many of these people don’t understand is that dogs, like most other species, including people, usually need some kind of motivation in order to do something.  Victoria Stillwell recently wrote a wonderful article explaining in scientific terms why giving treats is actually not “bribing”, and why treats are actually so effective for training.

The things that dogs do naturally are often intrinsically motivated, or naturally satisfying, such as digging, eating, sleeping, running. But to do something specific at a specific time, dogs often need an extrinsic or external motivation. This motivation can come in the form of something good – a reward such as a treat or toy, or something bad – a punishment such as a prong collar “correction”. In other words, they will either be motivated by a potential reward for doing what you want, or by a potential punisher for not doing what you want. It is not only logical, but scientifically supported that rewarding – whether through treats or play – not only leads to better learning, but to a better relationship with your best friend.


Cecilia and Buzz at a Rally Trial

People who train using traditional, force-based methods do so typically with the goal of not needing the prong collar or choke chain for the life of the dog, yet many of them continue to use them throughout the dogs’ lives. The same is true with rewards – many people don’t understand that it is possible for their reward-trained dogs to work without the treats now and then, and so they get “hooked” on the treats and feel like it is a crutch. Now, let me pause here and ask: is that really so bad? Would you rather have your dog addicted to treats or dependant on a prong collar for all of his life? But, I digress…

The point is, it IS possible to not have to have treats with you every time you go out with your dogs. The key, as Susan Garrett likes to say, is to learn to “BE the cookie”, or as I like to tell my students, find a way to be “more interesting to your dog than dirt.” And we all know how interesting dirt can be to a dog!

The first part of being the cookie is to be interesting, exciting, and POSITIVE. I’m quite certain that you will not achieve being the cookie by punishing your dog harshly, or consistently using coercive training methods. It is even difficult to be the cookie if you are constantly showing your dog how frustrated you are. (See the link to the studies, below.) You will become the cookie by playing with your dog, and making sure all good things come from YOU. Following are some tips to achieving this:

  • Feed meals by hand whenever you get a chance. There is no hard and fast rule that says dogs must eat out of food bowls. My youngest dog did not even get a meal out of a bowl for the first 3 or 4 months that I had him. Instead, I took advantage of feeding times to incorporate more training into the routine. If you have the time, feed your dog his or her meals by hand several times per week, and take advantage of that time to work with the dog on whatever training exercises you are emphasizing that week.

Playing Tug with Holly P.

  • PLAY with your dog!  Tug is a great game, but even if your dog doesn’t tug, you can run and romp together. According to Dr. Karen London in her seminar on Using Play to Treat Canine Aggression, running can even be a form of play. How often have you seen dogs play together by just running after one another? You can incorporate that into your dog’s daily routine with you as well. If you don’t run, there are other games you can play with your dog including fetch and “find it”, where you hide things from your dog for him to find, or “hide and seek”, asking your dog to stay, then hiding and calling him to find you.
  • Spend more time SMILING with your dog! According to studies, dogs are masters at reading human social cues. The more you smile, the more your dog will realize that you are enjoying the time with him, and the more he will want to spend the time with you.

Overall, it’s about building your relationship, not by force, but by encouragement and mutual respect. It’s about rewarding your dog for doing the things that you want from him, and showing him that you are not only the leader to be respected, but the most fun that he could possibly have with anyone in the world.

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