Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dogs: Training without Treats – The Abridged Version*

Fact: Most dog training books rely heavily on one of two methods, either food rewards or corporal punishment.

Fact: Bouviers are big. They have to know their proper place in the home.

Simon eating corn on the cob; Henry at left.
Using treats as rewards for the correct behaviour response from your dog amounts to nothing short of a bribe. You’re paying off your dog to do what you want.

The other, dominance training (championed by none other than Barbara Woodhouse and a small army of others), has now been proved in many cases to do more harm than good. I personally don’t think much of that method anyway. Any owner who feels that they have to dominate ANY pet should have that pet taken away and put somewhere where it can be properly appreciated.

Forceful control over your dog, according to a 2009 study done by the University of Bristol, will most probably lead to one of two responses – either an over-aggressive dog, or one who is fearful of being around you.

So what can you do if you don’t want to either beat your dog senseless or make it so fat it can’t do anything wrong because it can’t move?

Try what we tried. Love. I know it’s only a sample of two (Henry and Simon) but I believe that we have succeeded in having two dogs that listen(ed) – Simon has passed away – very well.

This is how it works. Show your pet lots of love. Difficult, right? Make them enjoy your affection and crave it. They already are hard-wired to want your acceptance as a pack animal so use it to your advantage. Reward them with love and praise like there’s no tomorrow when they do “good”.

When they do “bad”, shame them with your voice – and take your love away. Pay no attention to them for a while and/or act coolly to them. But make sure the scolding happens as soon as possible after the bad deed so they get the connection. If it’s too late it won’t mean anything (unless you come home and your shoes are half eaten, so you can point to the “issue at hand”).

Bad behaviour equals pack doesn’t love me.

How did I discover this? When I first brought Simon home at 8 weeks old I made the conscious decision not to use treats as rewards, and I flat out refused to “hit” him. So love was all that was left for rewards. (Truth be told, he did receive a few swats, but that was usually when he did something dangerous and I freaked out.) Simon had a special personality. I never saw a dog that wanted to be accepted so badly. “Love as a reward” worked beautifully.

It was kind of sad, because when you scolded him he acted as if you DID hit him (which of course made his dad feel bad…) and made it look like you did beat him when you had to do it in public. (Just this second I realized – maybe it was part of his plan…?) Simon was a really, really good boy, and incredibly smart. You couldn’t even spell things to keep them secret around him. He walked off lead any time and anywhere. He could be trusted completely. Actually, you didn’t so much walk him, as walk WITH him. That’s an entirely different concept. Not so with Henry.

We brought Henry home when he was 6 months old. He was puppy that hadn’t sold and he had been crated daily while his breeders were away at work. When we went out to see the 2 remaining puppies, Henry chose me. (More on that point in another post later.) Suffice it to say that training a 6-month-old dog was a challenge I don’t soon want to repeat. There was so much that should have been instilled in him when he was very young.

I’m embarrassed to say so, but we thought he was…slow. So did some of our friends. He kind of acted like a frat boy. We tried the same routine we did with Simon but it just didn’t seem to be “absorbed”. This went on for a couple years. Then he settled into a routine where Simon listened to us, and Henry listened to (behaved like) Simon. In retrospect I now understand that Henry was simply reflecting his place in the pack – a follower. It didn’t help that we never had him alone. Of course, Simon was always in the picture.

Simon is gone nearly two years now, and Henry has stepped into his elevated role with aplomb. Henry has had to think for himself now that he’s the only dog, and he has figured us out quite well - perhaps a little too well. Yes, we are indulgent, but he’s a good boy and deserves it (the love thing again), and now the same method - love when good, no love when bad – is working like it should. Once more we’re a well functioning unit of three – a small pack, but a happy one. I can even walk Henry off lead in the morning with no worries.

So what’s the synopsis: give treats to show them love, not for rewards, and leave the corporal punishment theory in the trash-bin where it belongs.

What do you get in return? A well behaved companion who loves to be with you and only wants to please you. We were/are lucky to have had two such beasts in our lives.

Maybe some day a third…

*This is the abridged version (even though it doesn’t seem like it) because I could go on at great length, but who wants to read all that?

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