My Dogs Get to Sit

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Do words Matter?

Is what we call something really important?  Does it really matter if we call it a command or a cue, obedience or compliance?  What are the fundamental differences?  In class, I often tell my students that my dogs don’t have to sit, they get to sit.

So what does that mean? 

Webster’s Dictionary defines command as “to direct authoritatively or order.”  And when you look at people who give their dogs commands, that really is what they are doing, issuing an order. There is an element of “do this or else” to a command; the threat of an unpleasant consequence for disobedience. The dog must obey.cue_sit_scared

Trainers who teach dogs commands usually rely on avoidance. The dog “obeys his commands”  to avoid an unpleasant consequence, like a leash pop, a poke, or even a dirty look. The dog is working to avoid something unpleasant. That unpleasant consequence can, in the dog’s mind, become associated with the command, the person issuing it, or the location it is being issued. The command itself can become a scary or bad thing.

A cue, on the other hand, is defined as a signal to a performer to begin a specific speech or action. That is all it is, a prompt or a signal that your dog recognizes and associates with the behavior.

Does the Dog Care?

A further linguistic difference is the response from the dog. A dog who receives a command must obey; a dog that understands a cue will comply, or conform, to a request. Why would a dog choose to conform without the threat of unpleasant consequences? Because the consequence of compliance is access to something the dog wants.  Rather than learning that disobedience makes bad things happen so it is better to toe the line, dogs learn that compliance and cooperation make wonderful things happen.

get to sitWhen we reward dogs for compliance, we create positive association with the action and with us. Sit is no longer an action the dog has to take to avoid something unpleasant. It becomes something the dog enjoys doing because it makes good things happen. The cue becomes a happy thing. As we continue to work with our dogs, we become associated with those good things. Our dogs begin to enjoy working with us as a team and the relationship grows.

The biggest difference in the words is the way we view our dogs and the way they view us. I prefer my dogs work with me rather than for me. They don’t have to sit, they get to sit.

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But my Dog is not Food Motivated

 

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I train with food. There, I said it. I don’t expect my dogs to work for me for just praise or affection or because they respect me. I get paid for my work. I pay my dogs for their work. I pay them with food.

What is a Primary Reinforcer?

A primary reinforcer is one that satisfies a biological need. They are necessary for the survival of an individual and continuation of a species, such as food, water, air, shelter and sex. Of all the primary reinforcers, food is the safest to deliver or withhold for training and the easiest to use. If you are using small, easily eaten, high value treats, food minimally interrupts the flow of behaviors which allows more repetitions of a behavior in the same timeframe.

One of the biggest objections to using food to train that I hear is “My dog is not food motivated”. Provided the dog in question is healthy, that is unlikely. Food is a primary reinforce. Dogs need to eat to survive. If they don’t eat, they will die. So dogs are food motivated.

So Why Would My Dog rather Chase a Ball?

When my 14 year old Pomeranian was younger, she loved to play fetch. My arm was often sore from throwing long before she was done playing. It was her favorite game.

One night, while we were grilling on the back porch, we gave all the dogs a piece of hamburger. I watched as Angel took her piece down to the bottom of the yard, buried it for later, and then immediately brought back the ball for us to throw.

Confusing, isn’t it? My dog preferred playing fetch to eating. Does that mean that for Angel, fetch is a primary reinforce? No, it does not. It simply means that at that time, Angel preferred playing fetch to eating. Playing fetch may have been a more rewarding activity, but she did not need to do it to live. She just liked to do it. A lot.

There are many reasons a dog might not eat at a given time. Like Angel, the dog may prefer a different activity. The dog could be too excited, scared or stressed to eat. The dog may not be hungry. The dog may not want the food being offered. The food may not be equal to the distraction level. Most of these obstacles can be overcome by setting up appropriate training sessions.

Why do I use food to train?

There are many reasons to use food to train. Unlike the other primary reinforcers, I can delay feeding for a short time and use the food in a training session. Using small, soft, easily eaten treats allows me to train quickly. I can increase or decrease the value of the treat to match the distraction level of the training session. And, since all dogs do eat, I can use meals to train.

I train with food. Why wouldn’t I?