Psyching Out Your Dog

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Something funny happens when your dog starts to get good at learning.  She can tell when you are in training mode and when you are not.  Basically she knows when the reinforcement is available compared to when you simply aren’t paying.  How?  Well, you have that treat bag on your hip.  There’s that clicker in your hand.  And you’re standing sort of at attention leaning over your dog saying all those “commands.”  You are so obvious (yeah, I am too).

Stella. Courtesy Brett Chisholm Photography

Maybe your dog loves to work when the treat bar is open.  But the rest of the time it’s “no deal.”  How do you get your dog to respond in real life, all the time, anywhere?  My answer: psych her out.

That bag on your hip, the clicker in your hand and the way you stand and talk are all part of what behavior scientists call your “stimulus package.”  You don’t have to remember the name.  Just remember that it alerts your dog that it’s time to act nice; it predicts  goodies are coming.  In order to psych our dogs out, all we have to do is make that set up a bit less obvious and a whole lot more unpredictable.  Anything can predict goodies.

Try this.  Hide some treats in a candy jar in the living room.  Later ask your dog to do her best trick or maybe just a simple “sit” or “down.”  When she does it – BAM give her one of those secret treats.  Wow, she thinks, I didn’t see that coming.

Slip some morsels of goodness in your pocket one day when your dog isn’t looking.  Put the clicker in your other pocket.  Call your dog to you and surprise her with a click and treat when she gets there.  Whoa, that never happened before.

How about some surprise training on a walk. This is new.  Going to the vet?  Train there.  Cool, you do this everywhere.  Why not train in your p.j.’s?  Hey, those are cute.

This is all about teaching your dog that she should be ready all the time and anywhere.  Training (and the possibility for reinforcement) doesn’t just happen when you wear a certain outfit in a certain place at certain times.  Training can happen wherever you are, often when your dog least expects it.

The result is a dog who is joyfully alert whenever you are around.  This could be another opportunity.  She watches and listens.  What’s he want me to do?  And when you say the word she acts quickly.  Yes, she thinks, I love this game.