The first rule of dog training is…

…we don’t talk about dog training.

Actually, this is a blatant lie. Chapter 1, verse 1 of the Dog Training Bible says “Yea, verily I say unto thee, whenever two or more dog trainers are gathered together there shall be discussion of theory, yea, and talk of paraphernalia[1], and lo, at least two shall come unto blows over whether it is better to free-shape a behavior or lure it.” Dog people who like to train cannot stop talking about dog training. We even talk about dog training to people who are not at all interested in dogs. Some of us lie in bed at night dreaming up tricks to teach our chickens.

Not that I do that, or anything.

No, the first rule of dog training, at least dog training the way I do it, is this: the reward has to be meaningful. The corollary to this rule is that it is the student who gets to decide what is meaningful. A lot of people fall down on this one because many, many dogs are really easy to motivate and reward with food, but their people say “I don’t want to use treats to train him, because then he’s always working for the treats.” And to these people I want to say, “What would you say if your boss came to you one day and said, ‘You know, I don’t like giving you money, because I feel like you’re working for the money rather than love of your job. So I’m just not going to pay you anymore, but instead every Friday will give you a hearty handshake and my sincere thanks.’?” Personally, in that situation I would say “Let me just go clean out my desk and get out of your hair” because while my job is pleasant enough, it is not in fact so pleasant I would do it just to make my boss happy.

So, you know, if you’re going to ask a dog to do something like a down-stay, which requires a lot of ignoring more interesting things to do and possibly ignoring them while lying on a surface that is not nearly as comfy as somewhere a dog would choose to lie, then at least in the early stages you need to really make it worth your dog’s while.

Step one, therefore, in my training relationship with my dogs, is figuring out what my dogs want. Zille wants you to throw the fetchy ball most of all, but if there is no fetchy ball she will work for cheese. Beowulf and Tinkerbelle really, really, really want the cheese although Tink will also work for tuggy and Beowulf, weirdo that he is, will perform minor behaviors for a fondle of his ears and a stroke of his head. Cheese is a work horse of dog trainers; many people use string cheese but I have had the best results with the cheapest sharp cheddar I could buy at the grocery store in a big block, cut up into bits. Hot dog bits are another perennial favorite, as are bits of tuna and other stinky things.

All of the preceding post is just a way of working up to telling you that Sid is the weirdest dang dog I have worked with. He will work for cheese, don’t get me wrong, and also hot dog bits, chicken bits, freeze-dried liver, kibble, and a game of tug. But he works for these things diffidently, they don’t really put him in the game. No, what is really meaningful to him as a reward is something I discovered by accident: Quaker rice cakes, in white cheddar flavor. For these he goes all cross-eyed and dork-faced and tries his best to remember what he’s actually supposed to be doing right now. I break them up into bits and parcel them out to him a few puffed grains of rice at a time, getting my fingers covered in cheesy-flavored powder which he licks off with the air of a wine connoisseur finishing off a particularly good bottle, a sublime concentration and enjoyment.

I have NO clue whatsoever what it is about these rice cakes that he adores so, but hey. They’re relatively cheap and they work, so I guess I will not complain. He’s still a weirdo, though.

Also I am betting that the dog people out there are bouncing up and down because I know, I know, y’all have tales of dogs who would only work for something equally weird, if not weirder, than white cheddar rice cakes. Bring on your dog (and cat and chicken and elephant) stories.

[1] Seriously, I love dog stuff. I have, at last count, four different models of clicker. One of them has an integrated telescoping targeting stick. I have leashes beyond number, collars beyond counting. Tink has a wardrobe that rivals my own, there are the bowls and the toys and the bones and the beds. And the blankets. I am never happier than when I discover a fantastic new piece of dog gear, and having a service dog has opened up WHOLE NEW CATEGORIES.

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Comments (7) | Life at the Manor — Tags: , — Andrea @ 1759 on 31 August, 2011

7 Responses to “The first rule of dog training is…”

  1. StarWatcher
    1950 on August 31st, 2011

    I dunno about ‘working for’ — but I had a horse who wouldn’t touch apples or carrots, no matter how I presented them to her. She did, however, love buffalo gourd vines. They grow wild around here and, when the leaves are crushed, smell exactly like 10-day-old body odor. When she snuffled me, I could always tell when she’d been munching them, lol.

  2. Trillium
    2045 on August 31st, 2011

    Bacon flavored cheese in a can. Which isn’t really cheese or bacon.

  3. Wordwitch
    2158 on August 31st, 2011

    My Bengal cat won’t touch cat treats. We have yet to find a kind he likes. Instead, he will eat chips (any flavour), bread (a huge fave!), walnuts, sunflower seeds, pasta, and rice. And more “normal” things (cheese, meat, fish, etc.), but we still think he’s strange. ;)

  4. Foo
    0621 on September 1st, 2011

    While not a trainer (although I can recognise the perils of having such an interest and talking people to death over it) I used to have a dog that liked most treats but was exceptionally keen for frozen peas.

  5. Gowan
    1206 on September 1st, 2011

    Vic loves kale stems. Not the leaves, stems only.

    …He’s such a dork.

  6. Katie
    1719 on September 1st, 2011

    Mitzi my dog goes gaga for clementines. But, they have to be peeled, and consumed one wedge at a time, taken delicately from my hand. She’s a very particular sheltie. Oh, and Pickles, my cat, is obsessed with margaritas-I can’t set them down, because otherwise she’ll stick her whole head in my glass. And don’t worry, I don’t let my kitteh get drunk-because I am NOT willing to share my margaritas. ;)

  7. Jordan
    1039 on September 11th, 2011

    Hysterical! A lot of the things you talked about yourself doing and saying sounded exactly like what I say to one of my best friends. I read it to her and after wards her comment, “Why are they talking about you? Are you SURE you didn’t write that?” Rofl, yep. My Belgian Tervuren, Penny, loved working for… blueberries(VERY messy unfortunately). My pound puppy Ciar LOVES carrots and apples. The galoot, aka Ciar, followed a guy at the dog park in perfect heel for over 30 minutes until I was like are you SURE you don’t have anything on you… he checked his pockets he had an apple. Ciar sat there staring at it and starting dripping drool. His comment “Wow, he really loves apples.” My gsd pup Ari loves best of all “good boy Ar”, second favorite in typical shepherd fashion a tennis ball and couldn’t care less for 99% of food or toys.

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