Make Training Fun!

Make Training Fun 2

Make Training Fun!

Make Training Fun!

Last week I brought up plenty of fun ways to keep your pooch active this winter (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/indoor-fun/).  One thing I left out was the opportunity to work through training exercises in a fun and meaningful way. For most people, training your dog can be a chore, if you work on training your dog at all.  Training can seem like a series of stodgy repetitive behaviors that you have to go through in the hope that your dog will become a better canine citizen of our society through rote memorization.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Training can in fact be fun- no really it can!  If you’re stuck spending more time indoors this season in the first place, might as well work on some low-distraction training to help your dog remember their good behavior, improve their not-so-good behaviors, and learn how to work though transitions.

I’m sure somewhere in your classroom days you had a teacher or professor who used memorization tables or lists to get you to learn specific information.  You probably also had a teacher who was active and engaged you in thought exercises to find answers to school questions on your own.  Which did you prefer?

Most people do not like memorizing mathematical tables or foreign language vocabulary word lists.  Repeating the same series of exercises with your dog is much like using a list or table.  Will your dog learn the behaviors this way?  Sure, but it probably is not as fun for either of you and may not help your dog learn to generalize (http://perfect-pooch.com/dogs-generalizing/). If you always practice sit-down-stay in a pattern, your pooch will likely be great at staying in a down position following a sit cue, in fact they may even lie down right away expecting the next set of behaviors.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s good to have a dog know what to expect and be prepared to work. However, if you ever break routine or set your dog up in a new situation you might be surprised that they break their stay.  This is one reason why randomization and play can be an asset to any training team.

Most people get really good at feeding correct behaviors, so good in fact that there is an entire industry of training treats, treat bait bags, etc.  Playing as a reward, on the other hand, is often more difficult for people to pull off.  So why do we use food rewards in the first place? Essentially because eating something yummy feels good (ie: releases good neurochemicals that are associated with pleasure).

Once you’ve paired a behavior with something delicious enough times, performing the behavior itself can feel good with less food reinforcements (think of Pavlov’s bell- the bell alone caused salivation after many pairings).  For many dogs, playing with their human feels good, too!  Unfortunately, it is much easier for us to quantify treats: one good behavior for one treat, then two good behaviors for one treat, etc. How do you quantify play as a reward?  Well, a session where play is used as a reward certainly does not look the same as a food reward session.  A train-and-play session should have longer bouts of play for shorter periods of work.

For example, a single training trial with food might look like this: Cue a sit using a hand signal or verbal cue. The dog sits, praise and reward follow.

This can be done fairly quickly.

A single training trial using play may look more like this: Cue a sit using a hand signal or verbal cue. The dog sits after a likely longer wait, praise and throwing a ball four or five times follows.

This game of fetch following the sit behavior will last longer than eating a single treat.  However, you will likely see your dog super excited and running back and forth for the toy (which is a great way to burn energy) with a happy face and fully engaged.  This excited play behavior also releases the feel-good neurochemicals. It’s fun!

What if your dog does not like fetch or hasn’t been taught how to play fetch appropriately yet?  No problem! Use any other game or play your dog understands and enjoys. I’ll often get down and wrestle a bit with my dog as a reward for good behavior, especially for an especially good recall to add even more reinforcement to concept of running to me.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to run to play with someone rather than run to sit?  By the way, are you sure your dog even really understands how to sit? (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/does-your-dog-know-what-sit-means/)

There is an added benefit to training with play that many people don’t take into account; you get to reinforce transitions!  When you feed a dog for appropriate behavior, they usually stay at approximately the same arousal level. The treat may excite them mildly or momentarily, but the transition from sitting to eating is not as exaggerated as the transition from sitting to running.  Teaching transitions, or how to calm down quickly, can help your dog understand changes in arousal levels in different scenarios.  If you practice sit-fetch-sit-fetch often enough, it will become easy for your dog to go from an excited state to a still state, which you can use when your dog is excited in other situations.

Remember that this type of pattern can become routine, as well, so in order to help generalize you should practice sits, or any other behavior, before and after all sorts of activities.  You can mix up treat rewards, fetch, wrestling, tug of war, etc. for good behaviors all in the same training session.  The goal is to have long breaks of play interrupted with shorts bursts of control.  You should spend more of a training session playing than actually cueing behaviors. This will keep your pooch excited and ready to work with you as opposed to bored or distracted.  Have fun with training!

Happy Training!

Tamar Paltin
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator