Rewards Must Be Rewarding

My training method of choice is Positive Reinforcement.  The technical definition of reinforcement (whether positive or negative) is something that happens AT THE SAME TIME the behavior occurs.  Mostly what we call “positive reinforcement training” involves giving the dog a reward AFTER the behavior happens.  Using a clicker or word like “Yes!” when the behavior occurs is the actual REINFORCER marking the behavior and bridging the unavoidable time gap before we can actually deliver the reward.  Karen Pryor pioneered this field which she developed working with dolphins;  hard to shove a fish in a dolphin’s mouth as it’s doing a back-flip out in the salt-water tank!  (Her book, DON’T SHOOT THE DOG, is a good read, even if you’re not an animal trainer!)

This method goes over very well with dogs.  Practical creatures that they are, they LOVE working when they know they’ll get something good for “guessing” right!   The “something good” can be food, praise, petting, toys — anything the dog likes and finds valuable!  It’s important, though to use something the DOG likes, not something the OWNER likes.

“Duh!” you say!  It does seem like this should be a no-brainer.  However, I’ve often seen owners — in all sincerity and meaning well — “reward” Rex with something he actively DIS-likes.  The usually happens when the owner thinks Rex will like something because he, the OWNER, does.

The most common example is patting a dog on the top of the head.  If we pay close attention to Rex’s body language, we’ll notice the closing eyes, the slight flinch, the flattened ears.  Some dogs actually duck and move aside and/or their tongue flicks showing their nervousness.  Some dogs freeze and squint; a few give the whale eye and lift a lip.  The reactions vary, but they all say this isn’t Rex’s favorite interaction.  Mostly Rex is tolerant and permits this because he senses it means a lot to us, but that doesn’t mean HE likes it.

Dogs instinctively dislike paws coming down on top of their head or back because in “Doglish” this sends a message of domination and/or challenge.  I believe that dogs try very hard to understand our version of body language.  Rex can learn we don’t mean anything by it when we pound on the top of his head, but I sincerely doubt he’ll ever ENJOY it.

I’ve seen owners “reward” a dog in some quite questionable ways.   Some offer praise in such a loud, brash tone that the dog actually crouches in fear.  Others insist the dog is begging for a belly-rub because she submissively rolls on her back.  One owner in a class would ask for a “Come!” then when the little fluffy dog DID, grab him on either side of his head, picking his front feet up off the ground and smothering his little face with kisses.  She insisted the dog LOVED that despite the dog’s flailing paws and frantic struggles to free himself.  I’m sure SHE loved doing it, but noticed the dog’s Recall skills became more and more erratic — mine would, too, if I thought that was what would happen whenever I got close!

Unfortunately, we humans have to work at empathy.  We have a great talent for fooling ourselves in these sorts of situations. We find it easy to imagine that another being would like (or SHOULD like) something because WE like it and enjoy it.  We find it more challenging to put ourselves in that other being’s shoes or paws and look at the situation  their viewpoint.

It all comes down to paying attention to Rex’s reactions.  A happy dog that is enjoying the interaction remains at your side and upright, has ears and tail up and tail loosely wagging.  He probably has a doggie “grin” — mouth open with tongue showing.  If Rex tries to get away, if he dips head/tail/whole body, turns away, closes his mouth with tongue flicking in and out, closes his eyes and/or freezes — he’s NOT happy.  Any of those reactions should send an owner looking for something more rewarding to use as a reward.

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