As Shakespeare aptly pointed out, man does not live by bread alone. Neither does your dog. At some point in training a young dog, you’ll need to go beyond food treats for practical reasons if nothing else. I don’t always have a hot dog around, and I’ll be darned if I’m giving up my last pretzel if there is still beer in the glass! Personally, I’m not grossed out by the next best thing: whatever residue is left on your fingers after cleaning a bird. After all, dogs are scavengers! Some old-school trainers proffer the head of the well-retrieved bird as a food treat.
But what else can a guy use? What else do you use to motivate your dog?
For me, often it’s the more personal touch, literally, that becomes the perfect payoff after a stellar bit of dog work. A scratch behind the ear says “good job.” Rubbing the chest is most welcome by a dog, and most will come right to you if they know you’re going to offer that. And no dog can refuse the firm, slow stroke down his backbone … if he arches his back to match your hand’s pressure you know you’ve provided the ultimate in physical rewards.
Much more handy than a scratch, clicker or food treat are your vocal cords. Tell your dog he’s a good boy, over, and over and over. Have a catch phrase if you need one, a secret language or nonsense word he knows means he’s doing well. Be consistent with it – simple is better. Avoid using your dog’s name – it has better uses, such as getting his attention prior to another command.
“Face time” is not just a business-speak cliché. A dog that can get right up to your head is a happy dog. As a puppy your dog licked his dam’s face in the hopes of some regurgitated food. I’m not suggesting you go quite that far, but usually he’ll settle for the first half of the transaction. Anyone who doesn’t let their dog lick their face once in a while probably likes cats.
Sometimes, the best reward is the most subtle; simply being around you is what your dog wants. This often works well as a discipline or correction tactic – withholding your attention by backing away from a gate will stop a dog’s frantic circling, for example. Turning your back on a dog that’s jumping on you will often halt it. Temporary banishment can be as effective as any e-collar.
Evolutionary biologists tell us the only reason dogs were domesticated, the sole reason they serve us, is because we’ve arrested their development. They contend (and I agree) that even adult dogs are in a state of perpetual puppyhood. They seek attention, positive reinforcement, and contact with the alpha pack member in their lives, and that is us.
Yes, you do attract more flies with honey than with vinegar and the same holds true for your dog. I’ve made a practice of asking every pro trainer I meet how much praise he delivers compared to the number of corrections. It averages about seven rewards to every correction. As a rule, more (much more) praise is always better.
A little demonstration you can try at home might help. (Thanks to trainer George Quinlan for putting me on the right track with this.) Ask another human to help by being the “dog.” Now, imagine (but don’t tell them) you’ve hidden a treat somewhere in the room and you want your “dog” to find it. In the first attempt, your communication is limited to “no” whenever your dog is moving the wrong way. In the second, you can only say “good boy” when he’s moving the right way. In the third, you can use both “no,” and “good boy.” Which worked best for you both?
Finally, note that praise is not a release: ‘Good boy’ can easily be misconstrued by your dog as ‘hunt on’ without discipline on both your parts. Pause between praise and releasing him to resume hunting, or before he’s allowed to goof around, for that matter. Have a release word, and be consistent about using it. Being permitted to resume hunting is reward enough for most dogs, but save yourself some aggravation by insisting he stand still until all the praise is delivered and a new command is issued.