My dog should work for me because…

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My dog should work for me because he wants to please me…

He should want to work because it is his job instead of working for the food… Sure he will do that behavior, you have treats…

Does all that sound familiar?

You have either heard clients say it or maybe even you think this way.

Traditional trainers use this argument a lot. However, if the dog chooses not to do what that traditional trainer asks, they “correct” it. The traditional trainers inflict a punishment such as a jerk on the dogs collar, which is called positive punishment (adding something aversive, painful, or simply something the dog would rather avoid). The dog quickly learns that not doing what the trainer has asked causes bad things to happen. Once corrections come into the picture, how can anyone be sure or tell if the dog is working for the trainer or just to avoid a correction?

Internal motivation is a wonderful thing, a desire to excel to succeed. Unfortunately you can’t depend on animals having the internal motivation to do what you want to do, just like you can’t expect humans to “want” to do things either. You have to build the motivation and desire to perform tasks and behaviors in all species.

Many breeds of dogs were bred to do specialized jobs. Those dogs have an internal drive to perform those tasks. It is unlikely you would have to use external reinforcement to train a border collie to herd sheep. However, when we add human defined restrictions to these behaviors, for example teaching a border collie to lie down in the presence and sheep, positive reinforcement is the best way to communicate what we want them to learn and know which behavior we’re encouraging.

Most of the behaviors we ask our dogs to do are arbitrary human thought up behaviors that have no meaning to the dog. Your puppy probably does not really care to sit while you are training him. When you reinforce your puppy for sitting, you are associating the behavior with good things. Through classical conditioning, the behavior itself takes on a positive emotional association. Now that you have build a positive emotional association to sitting, your puppy may develop an internal motivation for performing a sit when cued, because the sit has been highly reinforced. Most importantly, you become the “giver of good things,” which in return positively reinforces you for training your puppy.

Positive reinforcement is not the only variable when it comes to learning, for example if you crate your dog every time after calling him to you and he does not like being crated, then calling him to you can take on a negative association.

Ask yourself these questions:

What is the dogs emotional state of mind?

How is the dogs health?

Are there distractions in the environment?

Is the dog stressed?

What is your attitude toward training a given behavior?

What usually follows the requested behavior?

Is there physical pain or discomfort associated with the behavior? Is it FUN to do?

In the end it is all of these factors that determine whether a dog will develop a positive or negative association toward doing a particular behavior or toward “working” in general.

A great trainer will manage to control as many of these factors as possible to ensure the dog has a positive training experience. A happy dog is happy because of what you do. You can choose to help and guide your dog to learn the right behaviors through positive reinforcement which will strengthen your human/canine relationship. Why take chances of ruining the positive association by removing the positive reinforcement.

If you go to work one day and your boss decides that you should just want to work for him and that he does not have to pay you anymore, then I am certain you will find a new job. Your dog is not any different, he needs to earn his pay check for a job well done.

Pamela Johnson, CPDT-KA, M.A., and B.S.