"But I Never Had to Give My Other Dog Treats!"

This is sometimes my client's response when I explain that we'll be using food as the primary motivator during our training. They're baffled and maybe frustrated because they don't want to use food, and they think that they don't have to because one of their old dogs that is no longer with them never required treats for training. Usually upon further digging and information gathering I'm able to ascertain that one of the reasons below is why it may have seemed that way (that their dog was magical and needed little motivation!).


Want the TLDR (too long, didn't read) for this post? It's this: if you want your dog's behavior to change, you HAVE to have something that motivates them. Period. The end. we get to choose whether we use the stick or the carrot. Choosing the stick has potential fallout and emotional side effects for our dogs, so I will choose the carrot every single time.

Beagle dog in sit up position

1) Your other dog was that unicorn dog, that mystical being: a dog that works for praise and pets. They are out there, dogs who are motivated by praise and physical attention, but they are FAR FAR rarer than we have been led to believe (thanks Lassie!), and in my experience it's not really possible to turn your dog into one if they aren't born this way. These dogs who work for praise tend to be breeds that are bred for companionship and to work in cooperation with their people; the gun dogs like labradors and golden retrievers and some herding breeds like border collies (AKA the workaholics of the dog world) come to mind, but just having a certain breed isn't enough. I've known plenty of labs, Goldens, and border collies who could give a flying rat's behind about your praise and pets when something else is in the environment, but will happily work for food.


2) You used something else the dog liked. Did your golden retriever have a perfect off leash recall at the park every time growing up? Did you... have tennis balls in your pocket?!?! If so, you used what the dog found motivating to train, which is good! It wasn't food, but you were absolutely reinforcing the behavior with the toy. Using toys as reinforcers is absolutely possible if your dog is crazy about fetch or tug, HOWEVER it can slow down your training sessions (it's much quicker to get 10 repetitions of sit to down using food then it is during fetch when there's basically a mini play break between each rep) and not all dogs care about toys. I've met plenty of dogs who don't find toys exciting enough to work for, but I've never met a dog who won't work for food of some kind. For some reason we humans think using toys is more virtuous or inherently better than using food, and I just don't get it!


Tan dog lying in the sun

3) The dog wasn't all that interested in the world at large due to either temperament or a behavior issue. This one is more common than I think a lot of us realize. I met someone with an off leash beagle at a park when I was in college; I was surprised to see a beagle off leash because of their reputation for following their nose regardless of training. Is it possible to train a beagle to recall off leash? Sure. Is it something the average pet owner has the time to train? Not typically. As I passed them I remarked and said "Oh wow you must do a lot of training with her! Good job!" and the owner's response was "Oh no she's so afraid of everything that she just sticks close by, doesn't feel safe leaving my side." The dog wasn't well trained, she was just scared. I have seen this many times; owners talk about how easy training their old dog was to stay nearby, and they're exasperated by their new dog's running up to people and other dogs, and chasing of squirrels. But upon further investigation (how was your dog when meeting strangers in the home? what was their body language like on walks?) it turns out the dog wasn't motivated to "go say hi" to stuff because they were afraid of that "stuff" in the first place! If there are no competing motivators in your dog's environment due to fear it's definitely easier to install a reliable recall!


4) You were using coercion and punitive methods but didn't realize it because your dog was particularly soft tempered. This last one can be a harsh wake up call, and I want to preface this by saying: dog guardians do the best they can with the knowledge they have at the time, so I hope this does not come off as criticizing past choices too much. Even I used to do the Cesar Milan baloney and yell at/verbally correct my dogs. No one is perfect, and as we know better we do better. With that said. Trainers sometimes talk about "hard dogs" versus "soft dogs"; this tends to mean how sensitive the dog is, particularly about corrections given by the handler. A hard dog when corrected (either physically or verbally) might behave aggressively in response, or just be completely unfazed and not care. But a soft dog, when corrected, will turn into a mushy little puddle of dog and do everything in their power to appease the human who is frightening them. They might lower their posture, walk in a slinking manner, they might pin their ears back and "grovel", their tail will be carried lower. There are some dogs who are so soft that even a slight "hey" in a firm tone immediately gets them to stop what they're doing and attend to you. These dogs CAN be easier to train because it's easy to "shut down" behavior you don't like using what are often seen as 'harmless' corrections (I say "can be" because if you use a correction that is too intense you run the risk of traumatizing the dog and completely shutting them down, which makes learning impossible). But even if the correction on your end feels mild and slight, for your dog it's having a big impact on them and their behavior, and that means it's scary enough to carry that potential fallout we talk about. One way to help our dogs emotionally and mentally is relying on positive reinforcement, humane training methods and setting them up for success, so even if this "worked" for your old dog, we need to do better.

Beagle dog lying on a mat outside

The hard fast rule of ALL behavior modification and training is that you HAVE to have something that the dog finds motivating. You have to. If you can't motivate the dog you will not have behavior change. So use the food! Come to the dark side. We have cookies. :)


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