He only listens when I have treats!

He only listens to me when I have treats!”

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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