[Read this post, then go here and take part in the new deltawaterfowl.org QuickPoll on plastic baits in our fisheries.]
Never give away a bowl of food. That sage advice was uttered by a pro trainer years ago and I’ve followed it ever since, because it helps Buddy (and me) become better hunters. And believe me, when the television camera is on, I need all the help I can get!
I’m just a music major, not a trainer, but believe that short of birds and making puppies, food and other forms of praise are the strongest motivators for a dog. Smarter, more experienced trainers may disagree but take a moment before you turn this page. Put it in personal terms.
Have you ever had a boss constantly haranguing you, putting you down, and yelling? How hard are you going to work for that guy? Will you stay late, go the extra mile? Nope, you’ll probably steal paper clips!
On the other hand, it’s human (and I say canine) nature to seek positive feedback. “Self actualization” may be the psycho-babble term, but the fact is we want to do more – and better – work for someone who appreciates it. Think of your favorite teacher, the one you clapped erasers for.
That’s why I’ve learned to use calories (and other “treats”) to help my dog work with me, instead of moving his priorities to the top of the list at my expense.
Buddy doesn’t sing for his supper, but he’ll whoa for it. His reward for steadiness is a full bowl. I also dole out treats in the yard and field, often enough to keep him focused on me, my face, my voice, my whistle, my hands. But praise is earned. Tossed-off “good dogs” mislead and encourage mistrust.
Liver treats aren’t the only praise a dog craves. Maybe your dog responds better to bits of hot dog, or: envy. It doesn’t take long for one dog to want what the other gets when he does a good job. A Montana handler I know lets his dog hold the bird for a few seconds at the conclusion of a retrieve. Ahhh, the smell, the taste, the sense of accomplishment a dog must feel at that moment!
What about letting a dog get back to what it enjoys – hunting? Sure, don’t let him go without a release command, but sometimes his payoff is more hunting. When the sun broils, water works better than food. For you it may be verbal praise, or touch. Larry Mueller recommended a firm, full-length back stroke and I’m convinced it brings special pleasure to a dog. My friend Mike uses his beeper as long-distance “verbal” praise.
You might like a clicker and maybe you can explain why carrying another gadget to tangle with whistle lanyards and e-collar transmitters, then pressing it instead of simply saying “good dog” makes sense. I look forward to learning more about that!