Rewards glue behaviors in dog’s memory
by Augusta Farley
Oct 25, 2012 | 908 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The next step in becoming your dog’s “whisperer” is learning how to use rewards to encourage desirable behavior.

In my last column (Page 16, Oct. 11), I suggested that visualizing the exact behaviors you want from your dog will help both you and your dog be clear about the rules for compatible living in your family. When you both know the rules, then you can dance together.

This time, I’m going to explore how to glue these behaviors into your dog’s mind.

Ever wonder why, no matter how many times you tell your dog not to jump on you, drag you out the front door or ignore you when you call “come,” your dog continues to do the very behavior you dislike?

Simply said, dogs — and humans — persist in doing certain behaviors because they feel good.

If your dog gets what it wants and, as a consequence, feels good, it will persistently repeat that behavior, no matter how many times you “tell” the dog otherwise. Feel-good consequences are rewarding. Rewards create behaviors.

Feel-good consequences, called reinforcers or rewards, have an amazing ability to make behaviors stick. So, then, why are some owners so reluctant to hand out rewards to their dogs frequently and willingly?

I’m always surprised how many owners have the most amazing excuses why they don’t want to reward their dogs. The dog wasn’t perfect; the dog gets too much food at home (I’m still trying to figure out that one); I don’t want my dog to love food more than me.

There is a time in a dog’s training when you won’t need to offer so many external rewards or you may give different rewards, but, as with people, there is never a time when you stop rewarding if you want a behavior to continue. Rewards just become more subtle or part of living together.

Most of us don’t need to be paid daily for our work, but we do need to get paid.

This isn’t about “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Rewarding — or reinforcing — the dog actually means you are communicating that you want the specific behavior it just did. You are going to make the dog feel good so that specific behavior becomes a habit by sticking in memory.

Rewards can be verbal and physical praise, food and play, going for walks or lap time, in addition to freedom from the irritation or unpleasantness that results from being wrong.

For example, no dog likes being ignored when trying to say hi to his family and friends. Dogs quickly learn that to get attention requires playing by the rules during greeting — being polite and keeping feet on the ground.

The more your dog likes what you offer, the more the behavior will stick in its memory. Great, timely rewards glue behaviors in memory. Use lots of glue for strong memories.

Being a “whisperer” means becoming a benevolent leader for your dog. Leaders make clear rules and reward compliance consistently and frequently. Whisperers know what makes their dogs feel good.

Using good and valuable rewards should be a frequent part of your communication with your dog. Your dog will give back to you its full attention and a willingness to please.

Next time, I’ll share some fascinating research about what we are learning about communication between dogs and humans.

Augusta Farley raises, trains and competes with Belgian Malinois dogs and runs Best Friends Pet Resort & Canine Academy in Patterson. She also hosts a Patterson-based nonprofit dog shelter, Westside Animals for Adoption, on her property.

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