The Most Important Lesson My Dog Has Taught Me About Training

A liver cocker spaniel tugging hard on a toy.
Ripley LOVES to tug!

The first thing that Ripley does when he gets up in the morning is to find something to pick up and carry around. Any time he gets a bit excited he will grab a toy; he really enjoys carrying stuff and will retrieve anything and everything. He loves to play tug, and understands the rules well. This should be great for training, being able to switch between food and toys for reinforcement. In fact, I did all of Ripley’s agility foundations and early work with toy rewards.

However, it all fell apart a bit once we got towards competition ready and running longer sequences. My toy mad dog started blanking the toy that was thrown at the end. Hmm, bit odd because he was great with that toy last time. Maybe we’ll try a different toy? OK – that worked for one or two repetitions before it too got blanked. Besides, switching toys all the time and trying to work out which would be ‘the’ toy that day isn’t ideal.

There was also a bigger problem building. Every time I offered a toy after a sequence or behaviour, I was no longer reinforcing that behaviour because the toy wasn’t of value to him. Imagine being offered coffee all the time when all you really want is tea! To my shame, I didn’t listen to him straight away. In my head he was a dog that loved toys and had always worked for toys, so there must be something wrong with the toys I was offering, or the way I was offering them… So I persevered, but all the while his performance was deteriorating. We were both getting more and more miserable.

I finally realised that continuing to ask the same question wasn’t going to get a different answer. It was time for a new approach. I bought a Paws Pocket (food toy with Velcro closings that the dog can open to get their treats). Knowing his capacity for playing ‘keep away’ with things of value to him, I first introduced it to him as a retrieve item (I used a clicker retrieve protocol for this).

Then I put the food in it, so that the sequence was that I could throw the PP, he would run out to it, open it, eat the treats and then bring it back to me. To start with I always had higher value treats available for him bringing it back to me, with the PP containing lower value treats. This means that I don’t have to keep bending down to pick it up, or have to keep going and fetching it myself!

Once he’d learned all about the PP, I introduced it to training. His performance started to improve again; he knew what his reward was going to be, and it was definitely something that he was very willing to work for.

I’m not sure how much of an impact the continuing use of toys had on Ripley’s joy for agility, but I do know it took me two years to build his confidence back up. We’ve got a solid pre-run routine which we’ve practiced time and again; he’s learned about delayed reinforcement, and so as long as he knows where his Paws Pocket is before we head in to the ring then he’ll happily trot in to the ring with me for his run. That said, COVID was a great leveller for many of us, and it’s likely that we won’t continue with agility in the long term now.

Liver cocker spaniel with his feet up on woman, being fed treats
Our reward process is much more engaging now.

Our main ‘sport’ now is Scentwork – and this brought its own challenges! Sniffing is intrinsically rewarding for Ripley, which meant that there were times that he would rather keep on searching than indicate. The thinking cap had to go back on to solve this new issue, and I established that I needed to spend as much time rewarding him after a search as he spent searching. I also had to make the reward more interesting - just giving him a few treats wouldn't cut it.

So what's the lesson here? Only the learner can decide what is reinforcing. Vinnie would have sold his soul for a tennis ball, and LOVED cheese. Ripley couldn't care less about tennis balls and doesn't really like cheese. He literally spat out some Primula once! Just because something worked for a previous dog, or your friend's dog (or a random dog belonging to a stranger on Facebook...) doesn't mean it will be reinforcing for your dog. Take the time to work out what they really like, and build your reinforcement strategies around that. I'm going to talk about reinforcement strategies in more depth in a future blog, so don't forget to subscribe to get notified when a new post is published.

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