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Using Treats In Positive Training

Positive and balanced trainers use A LOT of treats during training sessions when a dog is food motivated. We use positive reinforcement to motivate dogs to learn and make the right choices. In other words, we want the dog motivated to “choose” (on its own) the appropriate behavior over the inappropriate behavior. During initial consultations, pet parents typically have questions about the use of high value treats in the training process. I want to cover a few of the most common questions in this post. If you have additional questions, please contact me! I would love to speak with you about the benefits of this approach!

What are high value treats, and why are they so important to training?
The use of high value treats to motivate dogs to choose the appropriate behavior is critical to the positive training approach. What do I mean when I say “high value”?  “High value” means a treat that your dog finds so valuable, it will do its very best (almost anything) to earn that particular treat. Also, treats given frequently would not be considered "high value".  High value treats should only be given on special occasions or in training mode.

It is important to remember that dogs are no different than humans in this area. For example, some dogs absolutely love the training treats that can be purchased right off the shelf in a pet supply store if they are new and exciting. If so, training treats work fine as a high value treat while in training mode. Other dogs find the training treats to be “just okay” or may not like them at all. If “just okay” treats are used, the training may go very slow or be unsuccessful because the dog is not motivated to learn. This is especially problematic in problem solving training. With that said, during the initial consultation, I spend time helping my clients identify treats appropriate for training. Examples of high value treats could be cheese, liverwurst, hot dogs, boiled or baked chicken with no seasoning, etc.

Should I worry about my dog only performing when I have treats?
Absolutely not if treats are used correctly in the process! Would you work hard at your job if you did not get a paycheck? Is that paycheck what motivates you to work hard and do your best? Using positive training techniques, your dog learns to “think” in order to make good choices. Your dog will learn the behavior that earns the paycheck versus the behavior that earns nothing!

When teaching a new behavior or increasing the complexity of a behavior that is already mastered, high value treats should be the starting point. As your dog masters the behavior, you can start cutting back on the high value treats. You can begin switching over to a lower value treat or just high praise. Your dog will perform behaviors because it thinks- maybe just maybe it will receive the extra special treat! Don’t despair!!! You will not have to keep treats on you or close to you for the rest of your life! But remember, training is a commitment for the life of the dog. Training should continue even after sessions end with a trainer. Treats and praise let your dog know it is doing a great job, and you really like and appreciate what it is doing!

Does it matter when I give a treat during training?
YES!!!!! Remember – you get what you reward. If you give a treat too early or too late, you can accidentally reward the wrong behavior. For example, if you are rewarding a “sit” and your dog gets up as you are delivering the treat – you have just rewarded “stand”. Always give praise and the treats at the exact moment your dog achieves the desired behavior. You are using the treat to mark the desired behavior and help your dog understand exactly what you are expecting.

What if my dog is not food motivated?
From time to time, I encounter dogs that eat to live vs. live to eat. High value treats like chicken, liver, or cheese did not solve the motivation problem. Unfortunately, this type of dog is a little more challenging to train, but do not despair! There are other options. For example, your dog may value your attention and praise more than anything on earth. Wonderful! Excited praise is a wonderful treat! Your dog may love a good game of fetch or tug more than anything on earth. Terrific! Good performance in training can be rewarded with a quick game of tug or fetch. The important thing is – find what your dog values the most!

I hope this post provided good information to use on your training journey!
REMEMBER – HAVE FUN WITH YOUR DOG AND ENJOY TRAINING!

Until next time,
Dawn

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Oh No! It’s Not the Dog – Part 1

Before I became a certified dog obedience trainer, I had always been a pet owner. As I studied to become an obedience trainer, I quickly realized some of the mistakes I made as pet owner. I also realized how easy it is for humans to accidentally reward the same behaviors that they desperately want to stop. As a pet owner, I truly had no idea why my dog did this and that.

In my studies, I learned that the number one reason dogs are abandoned or surrendered to shelters related to some type of nuisance behavior. The nuisance behaviors I am referring to are issues like jumping, barking, digging, chewing, unruly behavior in the house, etc. I strongly believe that it breaks the hearts of pet parents when they struggle trying to manage these behaviors. It can be exhausting. Unless pet parents take steps and/or seek guidance to understand what is triggering the behavior as well as how to manage the behavior, it is so easy to blame the dog. These days, life is so demanding and managing these behaviors can be very difficult for people. Many people work very long hours. On top of that, they are managing and juggling other obligations in their life. These behaviors break the heart of pet parents because pets provide humans so much support just by being there. There is just something about the unconditional love of a pet to make things look a little brighter. I strongly believe that humans need pets just as much as pets need humans.

Dog trainers and pet sitters do what they do because they love animals. They are not perfect, but they have a passion for helping humans and pets build strong relationships. My passion is just that – helping humans build strong bonds by understanding these behaviors so that their pets can keep their forever homes.

In this blog, I want to tell a personal story related to my dog’s history of jumping as well as some of the problems that developed for guests and unfortunately, pet sitters. Before my change of career, I had engaged several different pet sitters for over a decade. I remain in contact with a few, even after changing my career to work with animals. With that said, nothing I’m about to share is meant to criticize any pet sitter or trainer. Actually, I am sharing my story to help pet sitters, pet parents, and others manage and understand a variety of circumstances that could present problems. It was unfortunate that my dog’s behavior issue resulted in a number of very tense discussions with pet sitters over the years. None of us understood how to manage the problem. But most importantly, we did not understand that the dog was not the root of all evil. It was our human behavior that made the problem worse. I truly hope my story helps a few people along the way.

In 2009, I adopted a very handsome German Shepherd from a Rescue. The Rescue was very honest with me about my German Shepherd and openly disclosed that he had been returned to the Rescue once due to jumping. He loved to jump on people. He had been adopted the first time by a single mother and her young daughter. When he jumped on the young girl, the mother returned my German Shepherd to the Rescue. This was probably because they interpreted the jumping as aggression. It can be very scary and intimidating to have a large dog jump on you. But the assumption that my German Shepherd’s jumping was related to aggression would later be proven inaccurate. I was also told the single mother had never owned a dog before. HUMAN MISTAKE NUMBER ONE. I love shelters and Rescues. They do amazing work. I volunteer at an incredible shelter. Potential adopters should understand that shelters and Rescues are typically staffed by very well meaning human volunteers. These volunteers work tirelessly in their spare time. However, because shelters and Rescues are non-profits, they typically do not have the resources to provide a great deal of education to volunteers nor potential adopters. As it relates to German Shepherds, German Shepherds, like some other breeds, are wired to jump. That is something they were born to do, and they love it! It is a self-rewarding behavior. In this case, was it appropriate for the Rescue to allow a family that had never owned a dog to adopt a German Shepherd? Unfortunately, I believe the answer to that is no unless the Rescue is in a position to provide counseling on behaviors to expect after taking their German Shepherd home as well as provide future support/advice to the family if needed. I say that because there are certain characteristics of that particular breed that take some level of understanding. For example, German Shepherds have a strong prey drive. German Shepherds are physically very strong. Even taking a German Shepherd for a walk can be a challenge if not properly prepared and equipped. Also, any dog that finds itself in a shelter or Rescue has, more than likely, experienced some type of trauma that may have an impact on the dog for the rest of its life. That complicates things even further. I have been in contact with a number of shelters and Rescues over the years. There are shelters and Rescues out there that provide training to dogs that are taken in if certain behaviors are identified. Also, there are shelters and Rescues that provide support to families even after families take the dogs home.

As it related to me, jumping did not bother me at all. The first time I met my German Shepherd, it was love at first sight. When I met him, he was chasing butterflies in the foster family’s backyard and jumping very high in his attempt to catch them, I may add. What I personally find annoying as it relates to dog behavior may be completely different than what another human finds annoying. Jumping was just not on my list of problem behaviors. I have been thrown, bitten, and kicked by a long but distinguished list of horses in my life. My father was a semi-professional rider. Me – well – not so much. I had absolutely no fear of a large animal jumping on me. Also, I had owned dogs all my life. Some of my dogs were aggressive with people and with other animals. Some were love-bugs. I had seen it all. Just like the first adopter, I was also a single mother. I knew that I had to do a very good job assessing my German Shepherd before I adopted him. I visited with my German Shepherd two times before taking him home. He had no signs of aggression. His body posture was playful. He behaved well with the other dogs at the foster’s home. My daughter was a young teenager at the time, and I had also exposed my daughter to a variety of animals her entire life. She also visited with him. I wanted to see if he jumped on her and her reaction. At the end of the visits, we both determined there was no issue.

After getting him home, I contacted my pet sitter. I told her that my new German Shepherd had a jumping problem and asked her if that would be an issue. She told me it would not be a problem. She had experience with jumpers. As it turned out, she had experience with medium size dogs and not large dogs that jumped. The first time they met, the jumping started. Not long after that, an independent contractor was assigned to me. Again, I was told the contractor had experience. Later I learned that the contractor had no experience with large dogs. She quickly interpreted the jumping as aggression. So, to make a long story short, I received several unpleasant calls from my pet sitter. HUMAN MISTAKE NUMBER TWO. The dog was blamed for his behavior, and I was upset at the pet sitter because she could not handle the situation. It was difficult and ultimately led to changing pet sitters. This was unfortunate because I really liked the company and the owner. I trusted the owner, and I knew her heart was in the right place. As time went on, this behavior became worse and worse. I was working 10-12 hours a day. Several years after the adoption, my mother had a stroke. Receiving difficult calls from pet sitters was the last thing I needed, especially when it related to a German Shepherd that I loved very very much. I want to also add that for whatever reason, my German Shepherd rarely jumped on me or my daughter. The only time I experienced jumping was when I put my hand on the leash. It was true that just the thought of a walk excited him more than he was able to control. That being said, I even took him to a professional trainer. This particular trainer could not create an environment where my German Shepherd would jump. My German Shepherd absolutely refused to jump on the trainer under any circumstance. So, the trainer told me there was nothing wrong with my dog. To translate, he thought I was crazy. I found this so strange. On one hand, I felt sorry for my pet sitters and wished I could do something. But on the other hand, I felt so sorry for my fur baby that is an absolute joy to this day. He is adored by many from my vet to boarders to friends.

When I began my studies in obedience training, the reason behind the escalation of jumping with pet sitters became clear. My pet sitters had the best of intentions. All of my pet sitters over the years were in the business because they had a great love for animals. That is why we were all at a loss. Unfortunately, my pet sitters and I did not realize that during visits, the pet sitters were actually rewarding the jumping instead of preventing it. Some of them had the process slightly right. They would try to ignore the behavior and wait for him to calm down. But they did not realize that was only one of many steps in a journey that needed to occur. I was equally as guilty because I was not consistent in my reaction to jumping. While I was home, I would (as a pet owner before I was a trainer), believe it not – unintentionally – allow him to jump on some folks and not on others, mainly because the level of jumping was reduced or did not exist around me. And many of my friends were not offended because they had dogs with similar issues. HUMAN MISTAKE NUMBER THREE.

Returning to what happened when my pet sitters arrived – even though they attempted to ignore him, they were not calm. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of arm waving and in some cases, raised voices. When I say raised voices – their voices were not necessarily scolding in nature. Their voices were full of excitement. I know that to be fact because I observed it. The more excited the sitter would become, the more excited and playful he would become. In his mind, it was GAME ON – playtime! What does that mean? It means that he viewed their reaction as a reward for his behavior. He associated their excited response to his jumping. He thought the sitter was excited to play when he jumped. As it related to my daughter and I, my German Shepherd realized early on that jumping did not result in a paycheck. He did not get a toy (he is a picky eater and never liked treats 😊 ). He did not get petted. Until he calmed down, he received nothing. With that said, even though I unknowingly took a few of the right steps to manage the behavior, I failed on one of the most important steps of all – consistency. I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to who he jumped on. My reaction was not consistent. That completely confused my poor dog. That also did not help anything related to this situation and may have made the issue with my pet sitters far worse. My pet sitters thought that my dog was out of control and that was not the case. My pet sitters thought I was not trying very hard to help the situation. In general, that was untrue and caused many problems with pet sitters. But with that said, it was kind of true because I had absolutely no idea what to do. I was at a loss.

There are many, many reasons why I changed my life and my career to work with animals. But, my experiences with my German Shepherd certainly contributed to the decision. On several occasions my German Shepherd’s jumping issue was innocently interpreted as aggression. As a trainer, I want to work hard and become more skilled at helping humans interpret behavior. I am saddened by the stigma surrounding German Shepherds and other breeds. Yes, you see police dogs on television that give you the impression that German Shepherds can be very intimidating and aggressive. But, the same stigma is seen with Dobermans, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, etc. The truth is, a human can make any dog aggressive. One important thing to realize is that there are many factors that can cause dog aggression. There are behaviors that need to be observed to determine whether or not a behavior is truly attributable to aggression. If aggression is present, the type of aggression needs to be identified. It is so important that pet parents understand their dog’s behavior. Dogs watch our behavior very closely and respond accordingly. Dogs try to communicate with us. Misunderstandings can happen. While it is true that DNA can play a role in aggression, there are times (certainly not always) that what appears to be aggression may not be. Also, as it relates to nuisance behaviors such as jumping, many times, these behaviors can be managed with training and education. BUT, I MUST EMPHASIZE THAT DOG AGGRESSION IS NOTHING TO PLAY WITH. ALWAYS APPROACH A DOG CAUTIOUSLY IF THERE IS ANY CONCERN. DOGS MAY NOT GIVE ANY WARNING BEFORE BITING.

What is my message? I truly want to help humans understand that before blaming the dog for certain behaviors, take a breath. Take a little time to call a trainer for advice. Whether you call me or another trainer, it is so important to understand what is causing your dog’s behavior. If you have issues with the relationship between your pet sitter and your dog or other type of pet, sit down with your pet sitter. Have open communication. If a pet parent understands that well meaning humans can accidentally make behaviors worse, the pet parent is ahead of the game. Just know, sometimes the dog may be innocent. When I say innocent, I’m not saying we should overlook the behavior. I’m saying that some of the behaviors are just built into the dog’s wiring, and there is potential that human behavior will make the issues worse instead of better. Unless (we) humans understand the behavior, we will be unsuccessful managing the behavior. I have an absolute passion for helping these situations. I want to help pets keep their forever homes and have lasting bonds with their human family. I volunteer at a wonderful no-kill shelter in my spare time. I have learned so much. It truly breaks my heart to see animals returned.

If anyone has any questions about this blog, please call or email me! Feedback welcome!

Until next time!

Dawn