As I watched one of my students vigorously stroking and patting her big Gordon Setter, it was clear to me that only one of them was enjoying this activity.
The dog had his ears plastered back, his jaw set and was trying to pull his head away from her massaging fingers. I asked the woman if her dog usually came up to her and solicited petting at home. She thought for a moment and then said that it was rare. "So, " I asked, "why are you petting him right now?" She replied, "To let him know I'm pleased with him and that I love him." "Do you think he's enjoying it?" I asked. She looked down at the big guy, who was still trying to avoid her hands. "I never thought about it before," she said. I pointed out the things I had observed. She was flabbergasted and said, "I never noticed those things. Now what do I do?"
That was a tough question. She was trying to motivate her dog, but all she was really doing was annoying him. It had not occurred to her to observe her dog's response to stroking and handling, and to see that while she enjoyed this interaction, he saw it as unpleasant and perhaps even punishing. No wonder that dog was considered hard to motivate! Which brings me to this month's topic: what motivates your brown beast? And if your answer is food and/or toys, what else motivates him?
What motivators can you take into the obedience ring and what kinds of rewards can you use in training? Let's start with in-the-ring motivators. Praise and petting are obvious answers, but for some dogs, they are not all that reinforcing. Even for the dogs that enjoy praise or petting, it must be the right kind. Some folks use such harsh tones in training their dogs that even words of praise can be perceived as corrections. It's usually good to use a higher pitched tone for praise (but not so high-pitched or so loud that the sound again becomes harsh or is likely to shatter glass). Different dogs like different kinds of petting. Some big, physically insensitive dogs really prefer some good solid thumps, while others may only want one part of their bodies gently handled.
How can you tell which type of praise or petting is rewarding to your dog? Use your powers of observation. Watch the set of the ears, mouth and tail. Does the dog act like he wants more (leaning against you, initiating eye contact, nudging your hand) or is he trying to get away like the Gordon Setter? If praise and petting are not sufficiently rewarding to your dog, what other options do you have? I discussed this briefly in a previous article. The way to find out what your dog considers positive reinforcement is to observe him at home, in training and at play. Does he enjoy jumping up and touching your hand? How about a 'high five'? Or a quick spin or two? How about, like my beloved Border Collie Adam, jumping backwards as we moved from exercise to exercise? Or Zeb, who likes to jump up and gently grab my hand. I have a student with a Coonhound who gives her girl a quick belly rub. And one with a very submissive Golden who kneels down and lets the dog lick her cheek. Another student has a Rottweiler who likes to have the owner try to grab her stub of a tail. A woman with a very soft Rat Terrier crouches down and asks in an excited whisper, "Are you ready? Ready" until the dog gives her a play bow in response. Tug games with the leash are another, somewhat limited option, as the leash is only used for half of the Novice class. If you have a dog that growls playfully when tugging, or won't give up the leash immediately, you'd best find some other motivator.
Now let's look at motivators you can use in training. Here's a place where tug games are great. Tug games both engage the dog and relieve stress. I know there are some trainers who tell you never to play tug games with your dog, but that's a lot of hooey. As long as tugging does not escalate into snapping and biting, and as long as the dog readily releases the toy or leash when told to, tug games are perfectly fine. If you have a very soft dog who doesn't want to tug with you, you can try tying a soft toy to a string, or attaching it to your leash, and dragging it enticingly in front of the dog. You can buy one of those fuzzy toys with a pocket and put some smelly treats in it. An agility trainer suggested filling an old sock with raw hamburger and using that as your tug toy. Disgusting but creative. When rewarding the dog with toy play, it makes sense that your participation should be a crucial part of the reward. Therefore, it is preferable to use a toy the dog can play tug with, rather than retrieve (which moves the focus of the play away from the handler to the thrown toy). An alternative is to teach the dog to catch a tennis ball or other softish toy, which at least requires the dog to look at you in order to play.
When using food rewards, remember that a treat for a Terv-sized dog should be the size of your little fingernail (the natural kind - not the artificial talons). Again, experiment and observe the dog's reaction to different kinds of goodies. Remember that when you are reviewing something the dog knows and working in a familiar setting, kibble, Cheerios or some other less than exciting treat will do the job. When the exercise becomes more difficult, the value of the treat must increase, so move up to soft dog treats like Pupperoni. Soft cat treats can also be a big hit. For the really tough times, when the dog is having a lot of difficulty focusing, bring out the big guns: hot dogs, liver treats, cheese or leftovers. For many dogs, the ultimate food reinforcer is liverwurst, also disgusting unless you are an aficionado.
I strongly recommend Donna Duford's little book, Agility Tricks for Improved Attention, Flexibility and Confidence, available from Clean Run Productions. It details tricks and other behaviors that can add some variety to your obedience work and can be used to combat ring nerves for both you and your brown doggie. I've gotten into the habit of having both my dogs do tricks while we are waiting to show in both agility and obedience. Because these behaviors are just for fun and don't require precision, doing them relaxes both of us. And when we're both relaxed, things go better on the business side of the baby gates.