The FUN-tastic Training Game

By Lisa-Anne Manolius | January 06, 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Training and fun may not seem like obvious bedfellows. I suspect many folks think of training as a bore, drudgery. But not only can training be fun, training and fun should go hand-in-hand. Training with old-school methods – yelling, leash jerks, physical force, shock collars, pain and punishment – is no fun for the dog. Punishment-based training often makes the dog fear its guardian/trainer. Because punishment is hard to do correctly, the dog often has no clear understanding of what behavior is “wrong.” While punishment may teach a dog what not to do, it doesn’t teach the dog what behavior is acceptable. Punishment-based training also undermines confidence and causes fearful and aggressive behavior to worsen.

Positive reinforcement training however, is reward-based; it rewards dogs for behaviors that humans like and want to see more of. By definition, rewards are enjoyable; the dog getting the reward feels good. Given that, positive training done the right way can’t help but be fun. The trainer rewards the dog for desirable behavior with stuff the particular dog finds rewarding. Depending on the dog, the behavior being trained and the environment, rewards range from a variety of yummy food treats, to playtime or socializing with dogs, to a walk in the park, to fun and games with humans. The trainer works at the stage that’s right for the individual dog, a strategy that minimizes dog and human stress and frustration. Instead of shutting behavior down, positive training teaches dogs to do alternative acceptable behaviors that are incompatible with the undesirable behavior.

Dogs trained using positive methods develop a strong positive association to and eagerly anticipate training. Because training activities predict rewards for the dog, he’s happy to train. Training’s not work, it’s the “FUN-tastic Training Game!”

Whether you’re teaching your dog to take a bow or stay on a mat while you cook dinner, positive training done correctly should feel less like work and a lot more like play. If you’re not having fun training your dog probably isn’t either. Common causes of frustration around training include:

The training exercise is too hard for the dog. If the exercise is too difficult, dogs get frustrated and lose interest in training. Backpedal and make the exercise a little easier. Make the exercise harder only when the dog’s getting the behavior right at the current level at least 8/10 times.

The rewards aren’t rewarding to the dog. Dogs are individuals with unique personalities and tastes. Just because Rover likes sweet potato doesn’t mean Fido does too. Find and train with rewards that your dog really likes.

Rewards aren’t sufficiently rewarding to the dog. Vinnie really likes small hard biscuits and will do many tricks in a row at home for one. But when out romping off-leash around lovely distractions like gopher holes and other dogs, if I want him to leave all that alone and come to me, I reward him with something he loves to make it worth his while. Using rewards your dog really loves in more distracting contexts keeps him interested in the Training Game.

It’s time for a break. You and your dog may have been at it too long. Dogs have short attention spans. A few 3-5 minute training sessions scattered throughout your day are far more effective than one long marathon session. If you’re prepared with your training game plan, treats and training setups you need, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of a brief session.

If you and your dog are in the doldrums about training, take an informed break. Check out the resources at www.trainyourdogmonth.com. You’re sure to come away inspired and with practical easy-to-apply information for a new Training Game plan.

If you’ve never trained your dog, there’s no time like the present. If it’s been some time since you trained your dog, brush up on his manners, teach him a new trick, or sign up for a positive training class. Here are a couple of websites dedicated to positive dog training and with loads of free information to get you started:

• The Bay Area’s own www.dogstardaily.com
• Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training site at www.clickertraining.com

Have fun training!