Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Art of Praise

In last month’s wonderful, new, glossy-paper issue of Front & Finish magazine, there were several articles discussing how to avoid the trap that using food to train your dog can create. It’s not that training with food is bad. It’s what some trainers do with food that is the problem, such as failing to wean away from excessive food; depending on the food to get the performance that they like and want from their dog; handing out a treat for a really lousy effort on the part of the dog; failing to build a solid relationship with the dog that is separate from treats; etc. Here were all of these articles in the same issue, addressing a topic near and dear to my heart. This got me thinking about and paying attention to how much food I was using while training the three dogs I’m currently working. They are Gryffin, my 5 year old neutered male Flat-Coated Retriever, who as of this past weekend has 4 UDX legs and 51 OTCh. points; Ty, my 3 year old intact female Flat-Coated Retriever, who just finished her CD; and Joker, a 7 year old neutered male Border Terrier who was purchased as a pet for our son when said son was 12. Since said son is off at college and his dog loves to train, Joker gets to play some, too. I’m looking for Open legs on him. Our four recent attempts netted no legs, with the biggest issue going down on his sit stay.

The Flat-Coats are both fanatical retrievers, so I use toys a fair amount in my training in addition to food. Flat-Coated Retrievers are supposed to have a wagging tail; the breed standard says so :-). Having a tail-wagging FCR isn’t such a surprise. But Gryff wags when he sits in front. He wags on his finishes. Almost anytime he sits, his tail is sweeping the floor. If it’s still, I can usually get it moving with some praise.

Joker the Border Terrier loves treats – I have yet to meet a BT that doesn’t – but he also seems to be overjoyed at the chance to Do Something and get attention and petting. He loves to leap in the air to touch his nose to my palm. When I praise him and pet him, his tail wags, his body wiggles, his facial expression seems to say, “This is just the best!” It is sure reinforcing to me when he responds this way and it makes our training time together fun.

One of the topics I encourage my beginning students to explore is how their dog likes to be praised and/or petted. I think it is important to find out through trial and error what works to calm your dog and what excites him. This is ideally something you do without involving lots of cookies. Some dogs are calmed by a stroke on their head. Others get excited by this. When I was showing my BT Java in Novice, I got in the habit of bending down and patting him gently on his left side before the start of the Heel Free (off-leash heeling) exercise. If I do that with Ty, she immediately releases herself and wiggles all over. She quickly taught me that patting her is just plain dumb right before the start of an exercise. Instead, I use some quiet praise to let her know I liked the setup she just did.

About the closest thing to cuddling Gryffin can do is when he’s sitting in heel position. I reach down and quietly stroke him on the top of his head or scratch him around his left ear. It helps to calm him some. He likes to walk through my legs front to rear and have me scratch him in front of his tail, on the top of his rear end. I can do this very rapidly in the ring, especially Utility when articles or gloves are being picked up, and then proceed promptly to the next exercise. Some dogs enjoy it if you pinch their butt. Others hate it. Some like to have you play-grab at their feet. Others are offended by this. Try a variety of what I call “pushy-shovey” games to find out what works with your dog and what doesn’t. Some dogs are fickle enough to like something one day and be irritated by it the next. Java was like that. He forced me to try something new frequently.

I’d also suggest that you simply stand with your hands off your dog and praise him. How does he react? Does he wag his tail? Do his eyes brighten? Or does he ignore you and wander away? Obviously, different dogs and different breeds will react in a variety of way to praise. Our two BT’s react differently from each other. Java has always been the most serious of our dogs. It takes more effort on my part to get him to cut loose and really wag his tail. Joker definitely lives up to his name and is generally sillier than Java.

Years ago, I was working with someone in a private lesson. When she released her dog, she would grab at the dog’s face. Based on how the dog reacted – backing away and trying to avoid the grabbing – the dog found this unpleasant. I took the dog to experiment some with different types of releasing. When I gently pinched and prodded the dog in the ribs, she bounced back in an upbeat sort of way. The rib prodding energized her. The head grabbing did not. When the dog’s owner changed how she released and played with her dog, her dog responded by bouncing back and interacting instead of avoiding her owner.

In my essay Musings on Entering the Ring, I talked about the Setup Game, where you practice moving around the training area/ring, working towards getting your dog to sit in heel position promptly and correctly. Mix this game together with praising and releasing. Practice the two together. After a smartly done set up, praise with enthusiasm, give your dog a little push away from you (or a big one, if he likes it), and dash off to the next set up spot. If your dog likes to spin, cue him to do so, and race away and get him to chase you.

It always strikes me as oxymoronish to say, “Work at playing with your dog,” but sometimes that’s what it takes. Keep experimenting. If you’ve tried something for a while and you aren’t seeing an improved response from your dog, try something else. Have fun and eventually, so will your dog.

Until next time, happy training!

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