Category Archives: Positive Reinforcement

We teach sit because…

Last week, I asked the question “why do we teach sit?” The question was really meant to re-evaluate why we teach a dog any behavior. So many things we teach seem to be just the standard – a set of things every dog should know. But why?

Here’s what I think. I believe the reason we teach our dogs to sit isn’t always the reason we should have for teaching them to sit. If you take a basic obedience class, chances are you will learn to teach your dog how to sit, down, come, stay, walk on a leash (maybe), and leave it. But then what? I betcha that most people go home and don’t use most of these behaviors ever again, because they aren’t really taught how to use them.

So, why should you teach your dog to sit? Because it is a great tool! You can ask for a sit before your dog has a chance to jump up – do that every time and soon she will learn the pattern “approach person, sit, get petting”.

Some other uses for the sit behavior:

  • To get your dog to stop moving forward on leash (and therefore stop pulling)
  • To keep “4 on the floor” when there is food on the counter, a person walking in the door, or someone carrying a casserole to the table.
  • To prevent door dashing
  • To keep your dog from rushing up to another animal/child/person
  • To have your dog in a stationary spot before asking her to release a toy (can’t tug on a toy or run away with it if she’s sitting!)

I hope that by now you are thinking “hmm, every one of those items is to prevent unwanted behavior”. Yes! Exactly. The behaviors we teach our dog are all tools to ask them what we do want them to do in a specific situation. By teaching sit, down, come, stay, walk on leash, leave it, etc – and teaching them well – you have tools to direct your dog to good behavior when they might otherwise do something undesirable (to us). These are all communication tools to help our dogs understand how to live in our homes and communities without causing trouble.

I think that we need to shift our thinking about training our dogs. The purpose of taking a training class should be to learn how to live with your dog, how to ask your dog for good behavior (and therefore reduce the bad behavior) and to build a relationship with your dog.

So, the next time you teach your dog something new – think about all of the ways you could use your new tool to ask for something good from your dog!

Why do we teach our dogs to sit?

Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time updating my group class curriculum. I have two big projects in the works that are going to require a more robust curriculum than I currently use.

The first is about to launch! I have a brand new set of classes that I will be teaching at Doggone Fun Daycare this spring. There are two main sets of classes, one for basic training and the other for agility training. These classes provide a way for students to continue on past the first class they take in a more cohesive way.

The other project is not quite ready to be announced – but check back soon for the grand reveal. It’s a big one!

One of my goals in restructuring my curriculum is to provide more useful classes for my students. To me, this means a class where the content is applicable to daily life with your dog. In the more traditional content I have been teaching, we go through all of the standard dog behaviors – sit, down, come, stay, walk on leash, leave it, etc.

But why? Why have these behaviors become the standard? Why do we teach our dogs to sit?

Leave your ideas and comments below and I will follow up with my answers to these questions next week.P1160532

Toys as Reinforcers

Sometimes, a toy can be more practical or more rewarding than a food item. However, it takes practice to use a toy as an effective reinforcer. Remember – the dog decides if it is reinforcing, not you! If he isn’t interested or the target behavior isn’t increasing, then it isn’t a reinforcer.

Before you can use a toy as a reinforcer you need to understand what about the toy is exciting to your dog. There are several ways for your dog to interact with a toy:

  1. Holding the toy
  2. Chomping/Chewing on the toy
  3. Tugging with the toy
  4. Chasing the toy while you wiggle it
  5. Chasing a tossed toy
  6. Catching a toy in the air

Here’s a video example of Dan doing each of these:

Try each of these little games with your dog and see what he enjoys. Try to rank them in order and mark games your dog didn’t have much interest in with an “x”. Now, play each of them again in a brand new place and rank them – did the order change? Are there more or less “x”s?

Sometimes the type of toy alters the type of game your dog might like – for example, he might like to chomp on a ball better than catching it in the air. But he might like to catch a Frisbee in the air better than chomping on it.

List 5 of your dogs favorite types of toy and try to write down the top game for that toy.

How you deliver the toy can affect the behavior you get, just like the placement of a treat can affect the behavior. For example, if you are working on “4 Feet on the Floor”, be sure to present the toy from below your dog’s nose. If you hand it to him from above, he will be likely to jump up to get it!

Just like with treat training, you should use a reward marker for the behavior you like with toys too. You can use a clicker, the word “Yes!”, or the word “Good!” with both toys and treats. Just be sure the toy/treat is reinforcing so that the clicker doesn’t lose it’s meaning to your dog!

Another important piece of training with toys is to be sure that the toy is valuable. One way to help with this is to purchase 3-4 toys that are just for rewards in formal training sessions. Most dogs prefer new toys to the toys they play with all the time. My dog even prefers a new Chuck-It ball to an older Chuck-It ball! Be sure to have a variety in your toy reserve – a ball and several tug toys with different textures might be a good idea. That way you can add variety to the toy reward too. This is just like the concept of choosing a high-value treat for practice with distractions or difficult behaviors. I often suggest using boiled chicken or string cheese when you aren’t training at home, because these treats are extra special for most dogs!

Finally, and most important, be sure to carry out the game for a bit with your dog during each reinforcement period. Most of the time, just giving your dog the toy won’t be reinforcing and therefore won’t accomplish anything. The interaction with the toy is the reinforcer, not just the presence of the toy.

One Last Note:  What if your dog doesn’t like toys or doesn’t play any of the games? You can teach him to enjoy these things, but it will take a little practice. One strategy is to use a toy that can hold food so that you can transfer the value of food to the toy. Another strategy is to give food as a reinforcer for engaging in play (you may have to shape this in the beginning). Squeakers, fur-like material and even the scent of a toy that another dog used can all increase interest in the toy for some dogs. It is worth your while to work on building value in at least one or two of the toy-play games so that you have a variety of reinforcers in your toolbox.