By Fran Berry, CPDT-KA
Of all the questions I receive, “How long will I have to treat my dog?” tops the list!
It seems that some humans are resistant to give their dogs “treats” during training; their opinions run the gamut of “Dogs should do things because I say so.” to “I don’t want my dog getting fat (spoiled, sick, etc.) Not so long ago, I’d hear the question and launch into a tirade (in my head, of course); actually, I’d start explaining the fundamentals of animal training and wouldn’t stop until their eyes glazed over and they begged me to stop. But now a days, I don’t torture my clients (or myself) and instead when they ask the question, I smile, recalling a poster in my dentist’s office that read “You don’t have to brush all your teeth, only the ones you want to keep!” This sage advice applies to behaviors too, so I pose a similar question to my clients and ask which behaviors they’d like to keep because, feeding the behaviors they want and starving (preventing) the ones they don’t want is central to understanding positive reinforcement dog training.
But I personally think it’s time to move beyond the, somewhat, contentious dog-training debate of whether our dogs are better off working to get something “nice” or working to avoid something “nasty” and instead concentrate on providing our dogs with enrichment. I am fortunate to have friends and associates who are animal trainers in our local aquarium and zoos. Sure the public sees the entertainment value of training a dolphin, for example, however, the real purpose of training is to provide the animals with mental and physical stimulation and to teach animals a particular task so they can be examined by their handler or veterinarian. Our dogs too require enrichment and thanks to the recent research on canine cognition, we now know that our dogs solve problems in a variety of ways which has lead to enrichment options like puzzle toys, Boomer Balls, the creation of an expanding list of dog sports, and of course doggie play-care type of facilities where dogs play, swim and or hang out with their dog-friends while their human is at work.
There are so many ways we pet-parents can enrich our dogs’ lives, starting with mealtime. Our dogs are stimulated by solving a problem, and bowl feeding is solved in one gulp:) Try instead filling a Kong with your dog’s kibble and watch as he bats it around to make the food come out. Once Fido solves that problem, he is ready to be more challenged and you can dump his kibble into a bowl of warm water until it is soaked; drain the water, add a little peanut butter (optional) to make a stickier substance and pack the ingredients into the Kong and freeze. Your dog now has a new challenge to remove the frozen meal. As mentioned previously, there are numerous puzzle toys that will also challenge your dog’s brain by putting kibble or other food in the puzzle compartments.
How about a fun activity that you can do at home? Sure, it would be great to be involved in the numerous dog sports, but in addition to a class, you can make up your own games. Save empty cereal boxes and put some treats inside. With your dog in another room hide, in plain sight, the “food box” (if it’s too difficult, he won’t be able to solve the problem and will quit.) Now bring your dog back in the room and ask him to “Find it!”. Run with him and give a few hints until he understands the game. Eventually, challenge him by letting him find it by himself:)
How about a training game of H.A.T. (Hounds Around Town) where you take your treat pouch (“wallet”) and fill it with goodies (“doggie dollars”) and now you and your dog visit a dog-friendly store. While there, you reinforce your dog (“buy desirable behaviors”). The goal is to return home with an empty “wallet” 🙂
Our dogs have magnificent, big brains that need to be stimulated and we dog lovers, are no longer “owners”, but rather guardians or pet-parents and as such we have so many more options to provide for our canine companions.
If you substitute the word “enrich” for “treat”, the question would sound like this: How long will I need to enrich my dog? But it’s unlikely anyone who is playing these fun activities with their dog would need to ask because they already know the answer is “always”!