• Richard Chan

Stop the reward!

Very often l notice pet owners paying a lot of attention to the outward obedience position of the dog without paying enough attention to the inward mental state of the dog. They often reward a dog with eye contact, soft voice, praise, treat, and other forms of attention/affection when the dog’s mental state is not desirable although his physical position is. For example, when someone asks a dog to “down”, and the dog goes into a “down”, a lot of owners would reward the dog because the dog is complying to what is being asked. However, if the reason why we asked the dog to “down” was to help the dog to stay calm and relax outside of a coffee shop, but the dog is really stimulated looking ready to sprint any second in the “down” position, is this really the mental state we want to reward the dog for? If we start giving this dog our affection when his mind is anything but “down” (although his body is in the “down” position), we are reinforcing this over stimulated mental state - we are telling the dog we like what we see, and we want him to give us more of this. Shall we really be surprised that this dog is always very hyper ? If we want a calm and relaxed dog, we should not unintentionally reward a hyper and over aroused dog. We need to reward the calm and relaxed state of mind by paying close attention to “what is going on in the dog’s mind?” rather than just the physical position the dog is in. Moreover, when the dog is really calm, you should be careful what kind of reward you are presenting and how you are presenting it to the dog. It is, once again, about the mental state. If l see a dog who is able to remain very calm and relaxed around distraction, l may just leave the dog alone without giving the dog any treat or affection. The feeling of relaxation is a very high value reward for a dog - just as the peaceful feeling from deep meditation is to a human. Human choose to meditate not because they will be paid $500 when they do; they want to do it because it feels really good. The peaceful feeling is the reward in and of itself. Many human would pay a lot of money to enjoy this feeling. We can teach a dog to go into relaxation and reward the dog with the good feeling of relaxation. By using relaxation to reward a relaxed mindset, we can keep the mind of the dog in a relaxed state while we reward. We do not need to always pet or give the dog treat. Rewarding the proper mindset with the wrong reward can be counterproductive, too. If l keep rewarding a dog who is trying to relax with some yummy treats, it would be like me repeatedly ask a person who is trying to meditate, “hey, you want to have a beer?””Look at that fillet mignon!””where do you want to party this weekend?” We could actually condition the dog to believe that arousal is the desirable mindset when we reward with the wrong kind of reward presented in the wrong way. This is one of the biggest difference between a new dog owner and someone who is more experienced - the new owner tends to reward all the time and is not very mindful of what mental state he is rewarding and/or not sure how to properly reward the desirable mental state. Ultimately, we want a dog who can make the choice to relax without being told. We want a dog who wants to relax, and knows how to do it at will. To get there, we should be mindful of the dog’s mental state. The physical position is important but it is meaningless without the associated proper state of mind. Please try to pay more attention to what is really going on in your dog’s mind, and make sure you are rewarding the proper mindset, not just the physical appearance, and be mindful of how to reward. Hope this helps. Thank you.


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