I am referred to as a ‘cross over’ trainer. What does this mean? It means that a long time ago when I first started training we used tools and techniques that were based on the theory that punishing a behaviour would make that behaviour stop and encourage the dog to do a better one. We used correction collars, squirt bottles, rolled up newspapers, lots of ‘bah’ and ‘uh-uh’…….. Wasn’t much fun for dog or handler. Yes, sometimes the dogs looked really well behaved, however if you watched closely none of them were wagging their tails and they certainly didn’t offer any behaviours. They were too afraid to; if they got it wrong they would be corrected, so why would they bother?
The part that makes me a ‘cross over’ is that as a trainer I evolved. I evolved with science and best practice. I love working with a dog who looks forward to training as much as I do!
So what do I use now? I use REWARDS!
Sadly using rewards in training sometimes has a ‘stigma’ attached to it. You will still hear many ‘non-evolved’ trainers saying that it is bribing the dog, the dog will never do it without food, and the dog should do it because they love you….. bah humbug! I can tell you from previous experience, if punishment worked and rewards didn’t I would still be using punishment.
So what is reward training anyway? It’s making the dog work for what they want. Often people are confused between food training and reward based training. Reward based training not only uses food, it also uses toy rewards and life rewards.
Let’s explore these further:
Food rewards: these are not ‘treats’. A food reward should make up the dogs daily diet. This means the dog is working for its’ food. I work for my currency, so why should my dog be an unemployed bum?
Toy rewards: Play is a really powerful reward as not only does it form a great connection between dog and handler, it also builds great work ethic! Use a toy in the same way you use food; the dog recalls and you reward with a game of tug!
Life rewards: These are really quite powerful. For example asking the dog to sit whilst you take their lead off then the reward is the freedom of being off lead.
Figuring out what reward to use when takes skill and requires you to really know your dog and what drives their behaviour. Both of these a reward based trainer can help you with.
So how does reward based training work? When a behaviour is rewarded it increases in frequency – simple! Many behaviours that owners don’t like or would prefer their dog didn’t do occur because the dog doesn’t know an alternate or appropriate behaviour to replace it with. Reward based training explores the reason that the dog is doing the undesirable behaviour in the first place and replaces it with a more desirable behaviour. Reward based training increases work ethic!
Oh and let’s get one thing straight, reward based training is not a new phenomenon! Marine and exotic animal trainers have been using it for years! I would love to see a punishment trainer try and encourage a Polar Bear to voluntarily give a blood sample using a correction or electric shock collar, or maybe teach a Dolphin to jump through a hoop using “bah and uh-uh”.
So same as our school systems have evolved away from the good old meter ruler, so has animal training. Why? Because it works!
Kalmpets Head trainer and behavioural consultant