The Tool You're Probably Not Using Enough
Okay so maybe there's two tools. But one isn't really a tool, just a skill.
We have SO many wonderful tools in dog training. Food, toys, long leashes, harnesses, prong collars, e-collars, tab leads, the list goes on. I teach my clients to use a wide variety of these tools, and it is incredibly rewarding to watch each owner/dog team thrive when we implement the right combination of tools.
An unsettling trend I've noticed recently is the under utilization of one specific tool- the "yes" marker.
"But Ellen, the whole point of having a trained dog is that they'll do it without food!"
Yes and no. Yes, of course we want our dogs to be reliable without the incentive of food. But since when did continuing to use food inherently mean that our dogs are dependent on it? I don't really think it does. I think it means that we're respecting our dogs' biology and our relationship with them.
My dog and I are a team. You and your dog are a team. All of my clients and their respective dogs are teams. Within our teams, if we expect the other party to always do what we want without question, without positive feedback (remember, positive feedback to our dogs is often not what is to us- meaning your affection probably is closer to neutral, or, sorry in advance, maybe even annoying feedback!), how is that a healthy team? It isn't. A single party benefiting in a team is no longer really a team, it's just plain old "I own you, you are my property, do what I say" dog ownership. And yes, some people are just fine with that kind of relationship with their dogs. But I gotta say, the overwhelming majority of people who come to me are explicitly trying to avoid that style of relationship.
People who seek the kind of training I provide want deep, fun, freeing relationships that are fulfilling for both halves of the team. They want to enrich their dog's lives by taking them on adventures, hikes, wineries, vacation, social gatherings. They do what they can to ensure their companions will live the best quality of life possible for the longest amount of time they can, from feeding them biologically appropriate diets, supplementing with health foods, to being mindful of the toxicity in the pet industry. Bottom line, they love their dogs.
So let's back up to the whole point of this blog post. Our yes marker. Does it really make that much of a difference? Yes. Yes it does. Reinforcement makes all the difference in a relationship. If you don't believe me, then go ahead and try it. Use your yes marker a measly ten times a day (or increase by ten if you're already doing that) over the next 5 days, and try to tell me you don't see any difference in your dog's engagement with you or their attitude. Use it on your walk, use it around the house, use it out in the yard, anywhere and everywhere. But remember, the key is you must follow up with your food reward.
You don't have to do this every single day for the rest of their lives, but I do want to encourage a mindset shift from moving away from food entirely, to still using it regularly because it's fun. Dog ownership is supposed to be fun. That's the entire reason we do it! No one goes, "Ah, I really just want a carnivore existing in my house rent free with a neutral relationship". We get dogs because we want to have fun. But we have to remember, fun often looks different to our dogs than it does to us. To our dogs, food makes everything more fun (I mean, it does to me too, but that's not the point!). Use it, love it, you'll only benefit from it.
*The other "tool" (read: skill) that I mentioned earlier will be in the next blog post. Stay tuned!