teach dog to scratch an itch
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I was at a friend’s house the other day who was telling me she wished her dog would come when she called. “He just wouldn’t listen,” she’d say.
I didn’t have to observe long to get a sense of at least one of the underlying explanations. I’ll paint a picture to see if you get a sense too. Her dog was outside having a perfectly good time where there is so much sensory stimulation outside – noises, smells, sights. She opened the door and called him in. He did come (this time) and the reaction he received upon coming was simply a nondescript voice saying ‘good boy Willy’.
“Hmmm,” I could visualize Willy saying to himself. “Big deal. Why should I give up my perfectly good time to come for THIS?”
I see that a lot actually. Pet owners being frustrated because their dogs won’t follow their ‘commands’ and blaming the dog. Part of the whole problem is our thinking about what we want our pet to do in terms of a ‘command’. That word alone connotes dominance and force, not a very motivating and encouraging way to learn.
I’m not going to get much into behavior analysis in this post but I do want to offer a suggestion. What if, instead of thinking about telling your dog to do a command, you think about how you can put the fun back in learning? You put the responsibility on yourself to make the behavior you want to teach, a behavior that is just super cool to do because what happens right after the behavior is so high value.
I tell people all the time how much our Sam loves to learn. The other day, in just a couple of five minute sessions, I taught him to scratch an itch on his nose. (Unfortunately Sam got adopted into a family with a very silly trainer.)
The truth is, Sam loves to learn because I’ve made it so much fun. (Well, I’m also very consistent in reinforcing the behavior I want to see but that is a separate topic for a separate column.) That time we share is really quality time together. When I’m initially teaching a behavior (usually through shaping), he loves the challenge of trying to figure out what he needs to do to get me to shout in my very animated voice, ‘GOOD BOY’, which is followed by a favorite treat. And when we are going through his repertoire of behaviors, he does each one so enthusiastically because we make it one great party.
To everyone who has a dumb or obstinate dog, I challenge you. Instead of holding your dog up to expectations, hold yourself up to creating an environment that fosters a love of learning.