Advice Blog


Posted on November 3, 2015 at 10:10 AM

Imagine going through your own life where you could do anything you liked whenever you wanted, sounds great doesn’t it. You could ignore all social or safety implications of your actions. Ultimately exist to gratify only yourself, most people would term that selfish. Now some people do believe that dogs exist to simply please only themselves.

One of the most common problems I see dog owners face is when their dog begins to self-reward. Now a simple example is a dog that learns to steal food from the worktops or the rubbish bin. There is no desired behaviour required to earn this reward. The dog must simply get to the food and eat. Now this loop and pattern will continue as long as the dog is achieving its desired reward. So the easy answer is to stop the dog achieving the reward and teach them how / when they are given food. Hopefully this is an easy principle for most people to follow.

Now by far the most satisfying reward I see with most dogs is high arousal. This can be from frantically jumping on guests, intensely initiating play with its owner mouthing or toys, barking at the postman, fence fighting the dog next door and yes even reactivity. Any response when the dog responds by going to a high state of stimulation.

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So what better way than to use the dogs own biological reward when working or training your dog. I term this as a healthy outlet for the dog. So like the food example above let’s clearly teach how / when they are given the reward rather than the dog manifest self-rewarding outlets. I work all dogs in my care daily in defaulting to calm / low arousal and having a command to switch to high arousal. Now this can be as simple as your dog calmly walking to heel and giving an instruction to run on in front then back in. With my own dogs I vary our high level activites from running, chasing, scent work, playing, tug, climbing & the odd bike run.

The problem most owners face is that cue for arousal rewarding behaviour is usually triggered by the environment not the owner. So your dog may hear the doorbell, see a person or dog and start to escalate to a high level of arousal. This intensity is rarely necessary and ultimately can become self-gratifying for the dog. To be fair to the dog I advise providing them with a healthy outlet where they can get that biological fulfilment and ideally harness it to better your relationship. You can then be satisfied when working on teaching approapriate or inapproariate arousal / intensity levels.

A dog that has learned to heavily self-reward usually results in really poor awareness of their handler and will be detrimental to constructive training relationship. You must represent value to the dog and how your dog views you and your relationship is vital. Poor attentiveness also results in a disconnection in helping your dog when facing fears or uncertainty. The dog can develop a pattern of acting alone and there is no trust in feeling isolated.

It is essential when training your dog that it is combined with a healthy working relationship. One way to help recapture or enhance your dog’s attentiveness is to control rewarding behaviour. Rather than your dog freely act alone make it something you do together if it is appropriate behaviour. Wait for eye contact before offering rewards or release commands, being part of rewarding behaviour will enrich your relationship. For some dog training issues you may need to heavily control these rewards and movement initially. Ideally strive for a relationship that thrives on co-operation.

There is an intrinsic motivational value of task activity within dogs. This value can be unique to each dog, typically higher in working dogs. Learn what your dog needs to be satisfied and be present in helping them achieve fulfilment. Once you have a co-operative relationship with your dog you will start to discover it doesn’t come down to the dog pleasing themselves but working for your relationship, interaction and acknowledgment. I like seeing working dogs, I love seeing dogs work.

Derek Bryson

Paws for Walkies


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