Roberta Press, Lead Trainer, CPDT-KA

Does your dog only listen to you when you have treats? This is a relatively common complaint, stemming from a relatively common training error. The issue is this: your dog can easily distinguish between “training mode” and real life.

This often stems from cues that we are unconsciously giving the dog. For example, do you put a piece of food in your hand before you signal them to do something? Or do you put your hand into your pocket where your treats are kept, and maybe even accidentally rustle that treat bag, before you signal? You may not notice that you’re doing this, but your dog notices.

Another common mistake is only training with reinforcement in one place, say your kitchen, and then not carrying any reinforcers with you in other places. Yes, your dog knows the difference. Would YOU work if you knew you weren’t going to get paid?

How do you fix this? You need to make training mode and real life indistinguishable to your dog. Here’s how you do that:

  1. Keep the treats out of your hands, and your hands out of your pockets. Signal your dog first (“Sit!”), and when he complies, only then do you reach for the treats.
  2. Have treats available but not on your body. I like to tuck bowls or baggies of treats in various places around the house. If you’re out for walk and lucky enough to have a human walking companion, have them carry the treat bag. When you signal your dog (“Sit!”) and he complies, you can run over to a bowl of treats or get your human companion to hand you a piece of something yummy.
  3. Figure out what else reinforces your dog other than food. I have toys all over my house, and I’ll often carry a squeaky tug toy or a ball on walks. When I signal my dog (“Sit!”) and she complies, I can send a ball flying or whip out a toy for a fun game of tug. And what else reinforces your dog? Having the door open so they can go into the yard? Having the leash snapped off and being granted freedom? If they’re still on leash, perhaps running them over to a person to say “hi”, or over to a pee-marked bush to sniff.

To summarize, your dog should be learning that ANY MOMENT can be a training moment. Any moment could result in them getting reinforced, and therefore they need to listen to you ALL THE TIME. In particular I like to focus on point #3, because then I don’t need to worry about having food all the time. Plus my dog is learning that I control access to all things wonderful in life. So it pays to listen, all the time!

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