Trick for Treat
by Pat Hennessy
“Trick or Treat” – the famous phrase that is uttered on All Hallows’ Eve (or Halloween as it is now known), conjures up images of children begging for candy in spooky or silly costumes. The American tradition of going door-to-door has its roots in the Great Depression. People used the holiday to vent their anger, turning harmless pranks into costly vandalism. Households began offering bribes to neighborhood kids to distract them from their dirty deeds. After all, isn’t money or chocolate more rewarding than pulling a prank? Well that logic is not lost on our canine companions either.
Offer A Treat
If you are trying to teach your dog a trick, offering him a treat (which doesn’t have to be food) may entice him to learn it. If you are trying to keep your dog out of trouble (tearing something up or nuisance barking), redirecting him with something appropriate that will keep his mouth busy will be very motivating.
We all have different learning styles. Some of us prefer to read words. Some of us prefer to draw pictures (or diagrams). But we all like to have good communication with clear constructive feedback about what we are learning. Moshe Feldenkrais (founder and pioneer of a teaching method which focuses on the relationship between movement and thought) discovered that, “we can learn more in one lesson in the absence of fear or pain”. Therefore, we will concentrate and learn more effectively with praise than if we have someone leaning over us and smacking us with a ruler if we get it wrong. Fear or force may get the “job done” by achieving the desired behavior, but it adds stress which is harmful to one’s health and it certainly does not build trust.
When we are put in stressful situations our bodies automatically go into the fight or flight physiology (shutting down the digestive system, pumping blood to the muscles and raising adrenaline levels). Those dogs who cannot flee may turn to fight and you could end up with aggression. For those dogs who cannot flee, and fight is not an option, a strong toll is taken on the body and the digestive system is most likely the first indication (not eating or not digesting food). In this situation you could end up with a very fearful dog. Why risk the very reason that you have a dog — the relationship!
An alternative to fearful or forceful training methods is positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement methods date back to the 1700s when hunters gave their dogs bread for finding truffles (because pigs ate too many truffles upon sniffing them out).
And unlike Halloween pranksters, using positive reinforcement is not “bribing” our dogs. It is using a motivator to stimulate learning. Give a dog a treat and he has one snack, teach a dog how to earn a treat and you have a new learned behavior. After you have built many of these learned behaviors, then you have a vocabulary (and a lot of options at your disposal).
You want to use a high value treat – something that is really special and used only for training exercises. Remember when you would go through your Halloween candy? You always saved out the good candy to eat later and the rest you were willing to give up or trade away. A high value treat would be like getting a caramel apple instead of a piece of gum. You want it to be special and worth working for it. Training for your dog will be like Trick for Treat every time. Making training fun, and keeping it short, will inspire your dog to want to learn more.
A relationship should be built on TRUST and good communication skills. If you can teach your dog to think through a “request” and make an educated decision, then you are both winners. Learning to make the right choice is far more rewarding than just reacting to avoid punishment. If you want to help your dog learn quicker, you can use a signal that let’s her know she is “off track” by making a specific sound or using a word/phrase like “uh-oh”. That gives her the “direction” she needs vs. a “correction. Then teaching your dog a new trick will be like the Hot & Cold childhood game, where children are given guidance by telling them they are hot (going in the right direction) vs. cold (heading off the wrong way).
This October, when the wind comes up and the moon comes out, and you hear the haunting sounds………get yourself a bag of candy and get your dog a bag of liver treats — start teaching those new tricks and you will both be rewarded.