Noel Pepin Canine Behaviour Specialists
Noel Pepin Canine Behaviour Specialists

Training Beyond Treats


A new wave of positive training strategies for our canine buddies has swept the country. Reward based teaching systems have enabled our dogs to work with remarkable speed, agility and precision. The success of these systems is founded on the concept that willing dog students learn quickly. Linking food treats with positive behaviour allows owners to "shape" their dog's behaviour, keeping the good and extinguishing the bad.

It seems easy! All we will need to do is to keep our dogs hungry, catch them displaying behaviours we like, attach words to these behaviours -- like "sit" or "come", and then dispense a piece of food. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. And, it seems to fail when we need it most!

Think of your dog in the following scenario. You are out in the yard teaching your dog to "come". You reward its enthusiastic "come" with a food treat. Suddenly, you see your dog stop and stare intently towards the corner of the yard. You notice a cat sitting, motionless. Quickly, you take your dog's treats, and yell, "come". The cat moves and the chase starts. You frantically wave the treats in the air and yell, "come". Your dog, fixated on the cat, races around the yard until the cat leaps through a small hole and escapes. Your dog happily trots over to you and sits, waiting for its food treat.

What went wrong? You had treats. The dog knew the command. Why did it chase the cat instead of coming? More importantly, what can you do to make sure it doesn't happen again?

The dog's response was instinctive. The movement of the cat activated a genetic attribute which all dogs have. This "Prey Instinct" is a genetic trigger which causes canines to immediately identify and chase prey. The canine ancestors of your domestic pet nourished itself and its offspring by reacting quickly to the prey stimulus. Even though you were holding handfuls of its favorite treats, your dog responded to the more valued reward.

Let's take the same scenario. Your dog is on a long leash and you are teaching the "come"' command. Every time you say, "come", your dog races enthusiastically to you and is rewarded with a food treat. Suddenly, your dog sees the cat and the chase begins. But this time the dog is blocked by the leash. You repeat, "come" and begin to pop the leash. Blocked in its attempt to chase the cat, and wishing to avoid the discomfort of the "popping leash", your dog runs to you and sits. You have asserted yourself as the pack leader, and instinctive obedience to a powerful pack leader overrides prey instinct.

By giving your dog a "correction" for disobeying the "come" command, you have shown your dog that you are in charge. Yes, you should teach with gentleness and treats, but you must not accept defiance. Repetition and consistency will allow your dog to learn that when you say "come" it must respond. Soon, you will be able to take your dog everywhere with the confidence that it will listen.

Be a good "parent" to your dog. Be kind and loving, but set clear expectations for behaviour. Balance positive rewards with firm discipline!

Noel Pepin -- Noel Pepin Canine Behaviour Specialists

Noel Pepin Canine Behaviour Specialists