1 in a series of 10 articles
This is a continuation of my series The Top 10 Training Traps and How to Avoid Them.
You keep doing the same exercise in the same way — e.g. Sit, Good Dog, Treat –expecting to somehow magically progress beyond treats and a one-second Sit. But since you give Sparky a treat every time he produces the behavior, Sparky expects a treat every time. If you don’t have one, he won’t do it. So you get frustrated and stop treats altogether, which frustrates and confuses Sparky. He then decides it’s not worth the effort to do what you ask. Training failure!
To get a reliable response from your dog, you need to develop behaviors in an organized manner. Many parent/owner/guardians (POGs) do not understand how to, or even realize they need to, take this very important step. But it is literally the difference between success and failure!
To go forward, go back — to high rewards, that is (food is tops for most dogs) — and bring motivation, fun and success back into your exercises. Add a release word (OK) immediately after giving the treat so Sparky can learn that treat/Good Dog does not mean exercise over, and that he needs to stay put till he hears that magic word. This will prevent those irritating pop-ups that lead you to tell him to sit again and, oh by the way, treat again. And again. If you catch my drift.
After Sparky is mentally rejuvenated and has that OK thing down, slowly expand your exercises by changing one thing at a time: add more time between rewards, more activities between rewards, more distractions, different locations, etc. This is how Sparky learns to generalize the behavior (that’s trainer talk for reliably doing the same thing no matter the circumstances). Working this way, your dog will learn to do more with less and still feel good about what he’s doing. The treats will naturally fade away as you progress.
However, I never get rid of treats completely. I drop them in every once in awhile, to keep things fun and fresh for my dog. (Don’t you work better when incentives vary? This concept is called sporadic reinforcement, and it is the most powerful reinforcement method there is!)
For more on how to expand your dog’s exercises, see my DogLife Skills Guide Next Steps: How to Progress Beyond Treats. [click here for store]
Christy Paxton is the owner of Hand in Paw: Rewards-based Training for You and Your Dog and Cat, based in Brook Park. click here for her website.