What if I told you your dog could jump for joy when you got the nail clippers out? Or sprint their fastest to their dog bed and lay down to wait for you to open the front door? Or do a backflip in mid air? That would be pretty cool, right? Or maybe you’re thinking “yeah right”. Well, it can happen. With any dog. Well, maybe not the back flip part, I mean if you have a 10 year old dachshund I’m not sure that’s physically possible. Your dog can learn anything with abundant enthusiasm using just one small part of their everyday life.
The typical day for a typical dog goes something like this: wake up go outside/for a walk, eat breakfast, wait for owners to get home or some get to go to doggie daycare, celebrate owners return, go for a walk, have dinner hang out, go to bed and start all over again. Seems like the usual, right? Do you see anything in this schedule that screams “TRAINING OPPORTUNITY!”? If you are a dog trainer then you are likely thinking, “yes, every part of this sounds like a training opportunity!” however, for most puppy parents this is just a typical day during our busy weeks, nothing special. Well, I’m going to share a very powerful secret with you. You can use just one (or two) of these normal everyday happenings to create a doggie geneious! That’s right, not just a plain old good dog, though that is a nice side effect, but the type of dog that makes people say “Wow, that is a really smart dog!”. Are you ready for it? Dog food. Yep, dog food. OK, I know every one of you is now thinking “duh, we always use treats to train our dog” but hear me out.
Does your dog wake you up early for breakfast? Or starting whining and staring at you when it’s getting close to dinner time? What is your dog’s reaction when you finally say “Hey, Rover. How about some dinner?” Unless your dog is overfed, free fed (more on that later) or well, not a dog at all, I’m guessing his reaction is something like “FOOD!!!! FOOODDDD! You said dinner! I love dinner! YAY I get to eat!!!” coupled with some bubbling part of your dog’s personality. So what do you do next? Walk over to the dog food bag, scoop out a portion, place their bowl on the ground and go about your day. Great, done. Dog is fed, now time to watch Jeopardy. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a missed training opportunity. Quite frankly, the most powerful training opportunity of your dog’s day. What does your dog do when you say “Hey Fido, want to do some training?” Some may perk up a bit, maybe you get a tail wag and a sit. But I’m guessing you don’t get as extreme of a reaction as “DINNER TIME!”. And why not!? No, seriously, why not? I could throw in a handful of reasons here to explain the lack of enthusiasm but instead I’m just going to explain how to change that.
It is as simple as this. Train with your dog’s meals. Even if it’s just one meal a day. I’m sure you’ve heard the “Nothing in Life is Free” philosophy and this kind of like that but instead of thinking like, “If you want your food, Fido, you have to work for it” think of it like “Wow, dinner gets a very strong and positive emotional response from my dog! What can I pair that with so I he/she has the same response?”. Ok, I’m going to get all “nerdy trainer” on you. In dog training, we have primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer, sometimes called an unconditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus that does not require pairing to function as a reinforcer and most likely has obtained this function through the evolution and its role in species’ survival. Examples of primary reinforcers include sleep, food, air, water, and sex. Still with me? Just think of it in terms of if your dog needs it to survive it’s likely a primary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer, sometimes called a conditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus or situation that has acquired its function as a reinforcer after pairing with a stimulus that functions as a reinforcer. Huh? Think of it like this, if you ask your dog to sit, then say “good boy” and then give him a treat the “good boy” is the secondary reinforcer. After a while your dog will wag his tail when you simply say “good boy”. It’s not because your dog is happy that you approve of his goodness, it’s because he has learned that good boy means good things are coming, i.e food/treats (primary reinforcers). This is the same with a clicker or the word “yes” when we are training. They only have meaning because they are followed by something the dog needs to survive and therefore has a strong emotional response to, food. Don’t worry I’m not going to get too detailed with this. All you need to know is this: If you pair something with something your dog really, really likes then it can and will become just as valuable to them.
So let’s put this to work! Let’s say you want to teach your dog to go into their crate, lay down and wait there with the door open. We are going to use DINNER as our ” WOHOOO” item (primary reinforcer). “Fido, it’s dinner time!” Fill your dog’s food bowl, walk over to their crate ask them to go in then promptly place the food bowl in their with them. Or if you have a some extra time and don’t mind missing tonight’s episode of the “The Bachelor” you can toss one or two pieces of kibble at a time into their crate. Now, rinse and repeat! Within a couple days your dog will happily run into their crate as soon as they hear you grab the food bowl or say “dinner time!”. Then you can start asking them to lay down before you give them their food and eventually wait for 2 seconds, 10 seconds, 10 minutes! All the while your dog is excited and happy to not only go in their crate but lay down and hang out for a bit. Because it proceeds the thing that makes them happiest, DINNER! Don’t believe me? Watch this video. And pardon the messing crate room.
Here is how this works with a nail trim. First, we walk over the to nail clippers, pick them up, show them to our dog, then walk right over to your dog’s food, fill the bowl and give it to your dog. Now, rinse and repeat. Yep, it’s that simple. When your dog starts to jump for joy when you pick up the nail clippers you can start touching their paw with them, then clipping one nail, or a few nails and on and on until you are fully clipping all four paws and your dog is loving every bit of it because it happens BEFORE something they already (and instinctually) jump for joy for, DINNER!
It’s important that you break up each of the things you’d like your dog to do or feel good about into tiny steps. Remember you didn’t start running before you learned to walk. So it’s not fair to ask your dog to run to their dog bed, lay down and stay there if they don’t know place, down and/or stay. The same thing goes for nail trims or other items. Break them down into the tiniest steps you can think of and go from there.
So there it is…the “dog training secret”. Shhhh don’t tell the other trainers I told you. 😉
Your Doggie DIY of the week!
What can you think of that your dog feels “meh” or “whatever” about? Make a short list of 2-3 items. Now, make a list of 2-3 things you would like your dog to do reliably and excitedly when you ask them. *DON’T FORGET baby steps!* And finally make a list of the things that make your dog go “WOOHOOO”.
Things your dog feels “Meh” about:(yellow)
I would like my dog to_________:(orange)
Sit and wait while I open the front door
Laydown on their dog bed while we eat
Do a handstand on the wall!
Kong stuffed with peanut butter and carrot
Great! NOW fill in the blanks below:
I will____________ before I give my dog __________.
I will ask my dog to _______ while I give them __________.