Which comes first -
enthusiasm or control?
For those of you who have watched the thrilling spectacle of Agility (where dogs negotiate a course of up to 20 obstacles such as jumps, tunnels, ramps and planks, tyres and weave poles in the fastest time) or Flyball (where a dog jumps four low jumps, triggers a flyball box to catch a tennis ball, and returns back over the jumps to its handler) many of you may have wondered how the dogs were trained to run so fast and so accurately. How were the dogs taught so that they showed such enthusiasm and eagerness to do the exercises? How did the handler control the dog yet allow it to run with such speed and grace? The answers to these questions can also be used in other dog sports and disciplines where enthusiasm and control are required, such as Dog-Games. Let us explore them in some detail.
How important is
It is very tempting to want to control your dog, insisting that it stay with you and do exactly what you want it to do (ie make sure it does not go "wrong") when teaching a dog something new. However, doing this will frustrate the dog at having to wait for you to either tell it what to do next, or for you to catch up with it. This frustration will quickly extinguish any enthusiasm it may have had in the early stages of its training and will cause the dog to become anxious and stressed whenever it does the exercises in the future. Remember dogs are domesticated wolves, they enjoy the freedom of running and jumping and cannot understand our constant "nagging" to turn one way then the other as part of an agility course, or run over hurdles or through poles in flyball or Dog-Games.
Therefore, instead of concentrating on control and accuracy in the early stages of training a dog, work on building the dog's confidence and enthusiasm. These are aspects of dog training that have to be encouraged and nurtured so that the dog builds up happy associations with the environment, the equipment and the exercises you are teaching it. The dogs will then build such a strong foundation of happiness and freedom in the environment that their subsequent training can be channeled in such a way that they enjoy working with their handler and responding to the occasional commands and gestures to change direction and speed.
Motivation is the
So how do we build a dog's confidence and enthusiasm so that they want to work both with and for us? The answer lies in what motivators we use to reward the dog and how and when we use them. Dogs are not machines, they have preferences, likes and dislikes and will happily work for some rewards while finding others too low a value to be rewarding (see Values). It is up to us, the dog's owners to find out what works best for each of our dogs and reward them accordingly.
What is a motivator?
A motivator is something that a dog wants and must earn by doing a behaviour or exercise correctly, and is used to communicate to the dog that what it has just done WAS CORRECT. By withholding the motivator when the dog goes wrong, the dog can associate the correct behaviour with the reward and chose to repeat the behaviour in order to get the motivator.
For instance, we humans do not go to work just for the sake of it - we expect a reward or payment for our time and effort. If the reward is something that we want, we will happily work harder to achieve it, but we get demoralized and stop working if the wages are not fair, or we do not get recognition and praise from our employers. The rewards do not have to be too big, but the odd surprise (like being taken out to lunch, or a bonus for working overtime to meet a deadline) helps to motivate us and be happy with our employer.
Motivators are not used to bribe or lure a dog into doing an exercise or behaviour - it is the incentive to make the dog WANT to do the task because it is something that the dogs wishes to possess.
What can we use to motivate our
Click on each of these links to find out more about these different types of motivators.
How to use motivators
Keep a variety of motivators of different values readily available not only at training sessions but also around the house and on your person. Be prepared to improvise and use everyday objects (such as key-rings, cotton handkerchiefs (not paper ones, they go soggy in the dog's mouth!), your hat etc) for the dog to chase after, find or carry as their reward. This then gives you the opportunity to help and guide your dog on what is acceptable behaviour.
Look at How Dogs Learn for the correct way of using motivators when training Dog-Games.
Why does motivation work?
Dogs are opportunists - they are always on the lookout, trying to get something for nothing, and trying to get it with the least amount of effort. That is why they have survived for so many thousand years in human environments and why they scavenge and make use of any opportunity to survive. Let us use their strong desire to steal to our advantage! Instead of giving them their rewards by handing them a treat or toy when they have done something correctly, why not hide the reward in an old food carton or small plastic box and then give them these. They then either have to wait for you, the human, to open the container for them so that they can lick and "steal" the contents from the box, or they can rip and tear the cardboard packaging apart to get to their reward. Both are far more rewarding and fun than just being given their reward without fulfilling their working and scavenging instincts.
For instance, we want to teach a dog to jump an obstacle rather than go round it. We hold the dog very close to the low jump and as soon as the dog has jumped over it one of a number of helpers bends down and offers the dog to lick and explore the treat box. The dog is surprised and interested in the exciting smells coming from the box and enjoys licking every last molecule out of the container - to the dog it seems like "stealing"! The episode leaves a strong impression in the dog's memory and it instinctively remembers the location and environment where it found the food in the box (see Environmental Photo). The dog is then brought back to the other side of the jump and the dog is allowed to go over it again and be rewarded by one of the other helpers* with another treat box for it to steal from. The dog will soon experiment by going round rather than over the jump - however, it finds out that the treat box is withheld and that it does not get a reward. It soon learns by trial and error that the only way it can get to the treat box is by jumping the jump. Soon further jumps can be added, making sure that the jump and reward area are always kept in exactly the same position for each lesson.
BE PATIENT, as this trial and error is all part of the dog ensuring that it knows the correct behaviour (see How Dogs Learn).
*There is a specific reason why more than one helper is required for this exercise. If only one helper is used to stand near the equipment the dog will become too focused on them and not realise that the negotiating of the equipment produces the reward - not just running to the helper. By having a variety of different helpers standing around the reward area the dog will begin to generalise the behaviour and not become fixated on who is nearby, as it is the equipment that is consistent and can be depended on to be there rather than the people.
Motivating the humans
Dog-Games recognises the importance of not only rewarding the dogs for a job well done, but that the handlers deserve motivators and rewards as well. Therefore, Dog-Games awards certificates each time the dog and handler successfully completes a stage in any of the Games, and they are awarded rosettes and silver-plated trophies when they reach specific milestones. Another motivator for the handler is seeing their dog's name and achievements listed on the Dog-Games Roll of Honour.
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