Not “Sit, Sit, Sit” but “Rewards are the best way to train your dog…”
|Phot: Medenka Nera/Shutterstock|
By Zazie Todd PhD
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Do you ever feel like you are saying the same thing over and over again? Do you ever think about whether or not it’s useful?
I’m not talking about those times when you see someone repeating a cue to their dog over and over while the dog keeps on doing something else. That’s not a good idea because the dog is simply learning to ignore you. (Instead, say the cue like “Sit” once, then wait, and the instant your dog sits give them a tasty treat as a reward).
I’m talking about training methods.
Repetition on dog training methods
It’s important to use reward-based methods to train your dog because there are risks to aversive methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement). Plus, reward-based training can be a fun enrichment activity that improves your bond with your dog. Some studies suggests it works better than aversive methods, too.
Some of us have been saying that it’s important to use reward-based training methods for a long time (including many wonderful people who have been saying this for way longer than me).
I do think that, collectively, it makes a difference. For example, 99.7% of dog guardians in Woodward et al’s (2021) study use reward-based methods (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) at least some of the time. That’s huge.
It’s great because reward-based methods work.
It’s great because the more people talk about reward-based methods, the more this is seen as the social norm. Perceived social norms are just one of the things that influence people to behave in a particular way.
It’s great because every example you see of someone using rewards to train their dog successfully makes you more likely to want to try this yourself.
It’s also great because there’s something called the illusory truth effect that means that simply hearing about something more, even though it’s false, makes people more likely to believe it’s true. This is a big problem with misinformation. So the more people are talking about reward-based training, the less people are hearing about aversive methods like shock collars and leash jerks.
Repetition in dog training
There’s another time when we have to repeat messages. That’s with the dog in front of you when you’re training. Like I mentioned, not the cue; just say that once and then reward when the dog does it. But the whole sequence of cue-behaviour-treat, cue-behaviour-treat, dozens and dozens of times.
The more repetition, the more fluent your dog becomes in the behaviour.
The fact that you have to repeat it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It’s normal. (Think of how much you have to practice a new skill when learning, too).
Once your dog is fluent, you can start to make it harder for them if you like. For example if they can sit in an easy situation in the living room when nothing is going on, then you can start to practice with a guest, or out in the yard, or on the street.
You can use a set of rules, like Jean Donaldon’s push-drop-stick rules, as a guide to when to progress.
Being realistic and efficient
There’s actually no shame in being that person saying “Sit! Sit! Sit!” We’ve all been there. And we’ve all had days when training feels hard, the dog is distracted, we are tired, we forgot to get the best treats and are making do with something else, and it’s just not going so well.
I’m sure some of the time when people repeat cues it’s simply because they are embarrassed that their dog is not doing what they requested. The outdated approach of dominance in dog training has a lot to answer for here, because it puts the blame on the guardian as if they are a failure or have the wrong personality type.
But it’s lovely to see people training well. When the trainer has the dog’s attention and the dog looks happy and is working hard to earn those treats, it’s beautiful to see.
That’s not the only aspect of good dog training though.
Good training also includes those moments when the dog needs a break. For example, when you’re training in the yard, a good trainer is going to say, okay the dog just wandered off to pee and that’s fine, they need to pee and sniff, and I have great treats to train them with when they come back to me.
A good trainer is also going to notice if things are progressing too fast for the dog, and they’ll go back a step to keep the dog interested and motivated. That’s where push-drop-stick rules come in especially handy. It reduces those times when the dog gets bored and wanders off (but of course every dog needs to take a break sooner or later).
Seeing these moments modelled, as well as the attentive-dog ones, helps people to have realistic expectations. After all, dogs aren’t robots, and every dog and every day is different. No dog is going to get things right all of the time, or want to train for hours, just as no person does.
Repetition in and about dog training
When training your dog, don’t repeat cues, but do plenty of repetitions of any new behaviour you are teaching.
If you’re talking about dog training, keep repeating important messages like using rewards to train your dog. Even better, find imaginative ways to do so that involve sharing videos and stories too.
Good dog training involves being realistic, kind, and using repetition to your advantage. Just like spreading the word on the best ways to train your dog.
If you like this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which is full of tips on dog training and other aspects of caring for your dog.
For more tips on spreading the word about the best ways to train your dog, see to promote positive reinforcement dog training, teach, engage, and amplify.
Woodward, J. L., Casey, R. A., Lord, M. S., Kinsman, R. H., Da Costa, R. E., Knowles, T. G., … & Murray, J. K. (2021). Factors influencing owner-reported approaches to training dogs enrolled in the Generation Pup longitudinal study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 242, 105404. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2021.105404
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