How Dogs Learn

Playing The Game

Dogs learn to do something by trial and error, once they realise what they did led to a pleasant result – they will do it again. Conversely they learn not to do something if it results in something unpleasant, however if they try something several times and it consistently leads to no reward then they will eventually stop trying. This is often a much better way of stopping behaviour that we don’t like rather than looking at ways to punish a dog. Example; dog steals the mail when it drops through the letterbox. A remedy might be to put up a mesh cage to catch the post. Dog can’t get to mail, therefore finds the whole process unrewarding and in time it may well stop trying to take the mail. Remember the more successful repetitions we make of something we are learning the more proficient we will become at doing it, so to with the dog. Each time it does something which leads it to a reward the better it gets at it until the behaviour becomes habit and is difficult to eradicate. Great for teaching that which we want, not so good if it is something we don’t want.

Training a dog can be so easy and such fun, I am referring here to straightforward training and not complicated behavioural issues for which appropriate advice should be sought. Here are some examples of things we can do to entertain our dog whilst having fun. The advantage of these examples is the fact that the dog and owner are receiving physical as well as mental activity. The dog is also learning useful things to do at the same time. In many of these examples food can be substituted for toys and vice versa. However there is no substitute for the joy of an emotional connection between dog and handler. Be genuinely happy with your dog or show genuine disapproval at appropriate times.

Attention game

Say your dog’s name in an energized tone and each time it looks at you feed it food or give a game with a cherished toy. Keep this simple and short in duration. (You should start the game and you should end it whilst your dog still wants more.)

Recall game

In a safe environment allow your dog to begin sniffing a smell, call the dogs name and run or move rapidly away from it calling in an excited tone. When the dog returns to you reward with treat or toy/game. A tuggy game is good here as it conditions the dog to come to you rather than simply chase by you. If using a toy always reclaim this resource after the short fun activity. The dog will know you have this in your possession and will want it again. Control the resource, control the game, and control the dog (words borrowed and adapted from my friend and colleague, behaviourist John Rogerson). The above game can be adapted easily for use by several family members calling the dog from one to the other. I call this The Round Robin Recall.
By undertaking these things (you are only limited by your own imagination) your dog will view you as fun, entertaining, spontaneous, and more interesting than anything else. You can then apply these examples in situations you encounter. E.g. your dog goes to examine something disgusting. Instead of screaming and shouting, why not try the fun recall. This will also be of use when your dog becomes distracted by another dog or well meaning person when you are in a hurry. Anything really when you want your dog to return to you quickly without fuss.

Train dog to walk along side or follow you

Try walking briskly, each time your dog looks up at you or does something you particularly like say good dog and reward it that second. If the dog runs ahead of you turn and move in the opposite direction, when the dog comes after you play and praise. Make the play worthwhile this is what will cause the dog to want to be with you.

Searching game

Hide objects of value to your dog in various places and encourage the dog to sniff them out. Hide and have your dog search for you using scent.

Tracking or seek-back game

Walk across a grass field with your dog on leash, place an item of value to the dog on the ground and continue to walk sliding your feet as if on skis thus creating a line of scent. After a few meters turn and encourage your dog to sniff its way along where you slid your feet to the location of the reward. As stated you are limited only by your own imagination.

A word on play/reward

I see many, many clients who just don’t know how or are too inhibited to openly and extrovertly interact with their dog. When I say play to reward and thus reinforce behaviour you want repeating by your dog I mean play! You must make the dog view you are pleased with it and make it view you as fun. Dropping food or a toy benignly or patting it on the head saying in a monotone voice ‘good dog’ will not suffice. Get down on your knees with your dog and have it chase a toy that you pass from hand to hand, or around your body. Use an excited voice to build interest and excitement in your dog (unless the dog is already over excitable). My friend and colleague Fitz who ran a dog training centre for the armed services tells the story of a kennel maid who he states could have influenced a dead dog to play with her.

I often find I have to give guidance on simply being an extrovert and having fun oneself prior to helping the owner train their dog. I cannot over emphasize the relevance of voice intonation, and quick stimulating movement when working with and motivating a dog. It will get its energy from you. This is a binary thing; you must give some input also!

Above all – love and have fun with your dog!

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