While away teaching during this past week I had more than one student question the need to reward their dog with anything other than praise. One woman argued her case by saying “I want my dog to love me more than a wiener.” My immediately thought was how strange that you are loved by a wiener in the first place, but I guess that is none of my business (okay, little joke, no harm intended:).

The very next day I had a gentleman ask me something similar. He too, thought that praise should be enough for any dog and wondered why I kept insisting that people reinforce their dogs with a toy or food. He assured me his dog loved it when he praised him. I asked him if his dog loved his praise so much he would decline chasing a rabbit for the chance to be praised by him. Both are rewards to a dog, there is no doubt about it, but one definitely has more value.

I think the key to my great relationship with my dogs, and the reason my dogs do so well in competition, is that my training is all about the appropriate use of different values of reinforcement and the restriction of that reinforcement should my dogs make incorrect choices during training.

If your goal is to have a high level of success with your dog and you do not become masterful at controlling your dog’s access to reinforcement, you will be forced to rely on a significant amount of punishment in your training to achieve results, that just isn’t an option for me. My dogs are never physically corrected, nor are they yelled nor  intimidatingly “glared” at if they choose inappropriately. They have never heard the word “NO!” nor understand what it means if someone makes one of those loud guttural aaah!” or “eeerr” sounds at them.

This gives them the confidence to be who they really are, and to run as fast as they can in agility. My dogs are not unruly, out-of-control house dogs either, quite the opposite, if you have met them you would know they are likely the most well behaved family pets you have ever known. They do what I ask the moment I ask, without hesitation.

Since I do view all good dog training as the manipulation of value, I really do not expect the level of excellence one would achieve with praise alone would ever approach that you would see from using an entire spectrum of reinforcement that your dog views as having great value. Plus I can’t imagine the training would be nearly as fulfilling to the trainer.

After all of the years teaching seminars I guess I started taking things for granted. You see most of the folk that attend my seminars are more often than not “already converted” so mostly I am preaching to the choir (in that they have heard a similar philosophy to mine prior to coming to me). It was enlightening to be brought back to a reality where some people actually think dogs follow different laws of reinforcement than other animals.

I tried to explain the fact that we, as humans, all have different values to that which we view as reinforcement. I find it very reinforcing when I am away teaching, when people do things like finding me restaurants with vegan options, I also enjoy teaching people that can laugh at themselves, as well as those that tell me what a wonderful time they had at my workshop. All of that has reinforcement value to me. However if I didn’t get paid at the end of workshop I certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to return for a second engagement!

What about you? Would you get up every morning and hustle yourself off to work if your boss told you last week he had decided he would no longer be giving you a pay cheque, but promised to compliment your hair style and dress choices on a regular basis? I somehow doubt it. Then how can it be reasonable to expect that a dog should work for a similar pay scale?  I am sure your dog does find your praise and attention very rewarding, I know my dogs do, but it certainly can’t complete with my attention PLUS a tug session, a chunk of meat or the chance to dive into a pool.

I know many lure-based trained dogs do work more slowly or opt out of work completely, if they don’t see or smell a treat near by. But that is not the case with properly trained dogs in a reinforcement-based program. The value of the reward has been transferred into the work for these dogs. Yes now that they are trained my dogs could work for long stretches of time without ever seeing a cookie or a tug toy. I would imagine I could do it for weeks, if not months if I chose to, but why would I? If you follow good dog training practices, it is highly unlikely that any dog will ever shut-down, leave work or seek out reinforcement from someone or something other than you.

And given a choice I know my dogs love me more than any wiener capable of similar emotions:). So don’t cheap-out on your dogs, they deserve better from us all. Be appropriate but generous with your use of both praise and other higher value rewards.

Today I am grateful for the students that are not afraid to question what they are being taught and are willing to risk the embarrassment of being different, in order to seek the answers that will further along their dog training understanding (provided, of course, that in the end they agree with me and do as I suggest:)).