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Will you touch fire?

November 17, 2018

Everyone says they want their dogs to know how to make better decisions.

But not everyone can do it successfully.

You can tell the dog “when you do this, you will be rewarded!” This is how we teach a dog what to do. We use reward to reinforce a behavior.

But in order for the dog to know how to make the right decision, the dog also needs to know what would happen if he doesn’t do what we ask, what will happen if he does something inappropriate?

“You will get your treats if you sit down.”

“Great! But what will happen if l don’t sit, but choose to jump on the counter and eat all those yummy cup cakes instead?”

There has to be consequence in order for the dog to stop wanting to choose that other alternative.

Many people don’t understand what this means.

I have seen many people do this:

The dog sits, he gets a treat. He jumps to steal the cup cakes, owner tries to use treats to redirect the dog to sit for the treat, again and again, without correcting the counter surfing with a meaning consequence.

If you were the dog, what would you do: when you jump, you can get the cup cakes, if you sit after you jump, you still get a treat. Jumping is a lot of fun, cup cakes are yummy, so are the treats.

Why wouldn’t you choose to jump? You are getting a reward no matter what you choose.

Or some people will do this: the dog jumps on the counter, they block the dog or pull the dog away or take the cup cakes away. The dog sits, they give the dog a treat. The dog tries again, they repeat. They believe they are teaching the dog an alternative behaviour - when you sit, you will get the treat; when you jump, you get nothing.

The dog still gets really excited when he sees the cup cake. He may sit for a treat when you are around and when you have some very yummy treat, but when you have no treat on you, when your treat is not yummy, and especially when you are not around, the dog will still want to go for the cup cakes.

How do we teach a dog to make the right decision of not jumping on the counter even when we are not around? How do we teach the dog stealing our cup cakes is wrong?

We show the dog that there is a consequence for making this poor decision.

We show him he is not going to get a reward when he tries this inappropriate behaviour. We show him a consequence he would want to avoid with or without us around.

That is how me make sure the dog will not counter surf even when we have no treat or when we are not around.

Only using reward to teach an alternate behaviour (e.g. sit), or removing the reward (e.g. not letting him get to the cup cakes) will not make him stop wanting the cup cakes. As long as he wants the cup cake, he will keep trying. Your reward will never outweigh his desire to get the cup cakes. If you are not around, there is no way he will leave the cup cakes alone.

Consequence is the other side of reward. You cannot make a good decision if you do not have both sides of the story.

Consequence is part of teaching a dog how to make better choices.

The consequence has to be meaningful and believable. It has to be something that means more than not getting the reward.

We use remote collar to stop counter surfing. We will correct the dog at a level that is meaningful when he tries to counter surf. We do not say anything during the process. The dog will not associate this correction as coming from the human. It will not damage our relationship with the dog because we are not even in the picture.

We want the dog to associate the correction with the thought of stealing the cup cakes. This correction will be high and unpleasant. The dog will remember this, will try to avoid feeling it again, so he will not make the decision to counter surf again - even when no one is home.

It is like how we do not want to touch fire because we know it will burn us. We don’t need someone to constantly remind us not to do so. We don’t need any candy or money to make us stop touching fire. And the decision of not touching fire will not make us shut down or become fearful of our parents or spouse or siblings. We still live happily and comfortably in our house. We will still use the stove. We will still eat food coming from the stove. We just know that it is a poor choice to touch the fire from the stove so we will choose not to do it.

We learn lots of things in life through avoidance of consequence. We also learn lots of things in life through motivation of reward. They are both essential for us to become better decision makers, and they are essential for our dogs as well.

Thank you. 

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