Want to know how not to train your dog with food treats? Follow my lead. Because I really blew it.
My Training Fail
Boy, was I embarrassed.
The park ranger invited Honey to join us inside for her talk about the Depression-era paintings of the Cape Lookout area. We promised that Honey would behave and that if anyone expressed discomfort with having her there, I would take her outside.
Honey’s biggest challenge is remaining calm when meeting new people. So I had the smart idea of plying her with treats to keep her focused on me instead of on the ranger or anyone else who stopped in for the talk.
It was a huge mistake.
Honey became so aroused by the stinky treats that she went into full-on begging mode. She had trouble sitting still. She put on her little demanding posture she uses when she wants something from me.
And I can’t blame her. It was all my fault.
I had made a poor choice. I forgot what I knew about training and rewards. And I caused the kinds of problems I had hoped to avoid.
3 Things I Forgot
I forgot three important ideas about training and rewards. Read carefully so you can avoid the same problems.
Bribery is not training
Yeah, I wasn’t training Honey with treats. I was bribing her.
I was so worried about her showing too much interest in a stranger at the wrong time that I resorted to treats when I should not have. But there was nothing about keeping stinky treats under Honey’s nose that trained her to be calm when greeting strangers.
If Honey showed signs of being too excited by meeting someone, I should have done what we do when Mike walks Honey to meet me somewhere off the boat:
- Ask Honey to sit as soon as I come into view (preferably before she sees me at all);
- If Honey gets up or tries to pull toward me, I stop walking toward her;
- When Honey relaxes, I walk a little closer;
- We repeat every step until Honey is reliably calm;
- Only when Honey looks relaxed do I walk up and greet her.
By doing this every time, Honey learns that she doesn’t get what she wants (to greet me) until she relaxes.
It’s a little harder to do with strangers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encouraged Honey to greet a stranger calmly just to have the same stranger scream in a high-pitched voice and pat his chest to encourage Honey to jump up.
But it is possible to do the same thing by walking away if Honey isn’t capable of a calm greeting.
Bribery is easy. Training is better.
Trust the training
I was so desperate for Honey to behave I stuffed her muzzle with treats. You’d think she turned into a Tasmanian devil at the sight of a friendly stranger.
But I’ve been working on calm greetings with Honey since she was a wee pup. She even passed her Canine Good Citizen test (although greeting strangers calmly took two attempts).
For Honey, an overenthusiastic greeting is when she wags her tail enough to create gusts measurable on an anemometer. And when her paws dance lightly on the floor. She doesn’t jump. She doesn’t bark.
But I’ve met people who felt overwhelmed by even Honey’s mild excitement. And I guess I’ve internalized their implied criticism of her manners.
In truth, Honey is an excellent greeter. Not perfect. But pretty darn good. Especially considering how much she loves meeting strangers.
I guess I just need to trust the training. And rely on Honey to do what she has worked on for the past eight years.
But I still made one last mistake…
Match the reward with the task
The treats I bribed Honey with were on board to help coax her on and off the boat in challenging situations. They were mini liver treats. They smelled delicious—if you like that sort of thing.
The rewards were too high-value to encourage calm behavior. They were stinky enough to break through mild fear. But too stinky to slip into the background of other indoor smells.
If I was going to make the mistake of bribing Honey with rewards, I should have picked something less tempting. Like spinach.
Why It Matters
Honey behaved reasonably during the park ranger’s half hour talk. And the ranger seemed to feel she behaved well enough that she even gave Honey a junior park ranger badge to wear. So my training fail didn’t shatter the world.
But we live on a boat. We travel a lot. And Honey goes nearly everywhere with us when we leave the boat.
We need Honey to be polite enough that we continue to be invited indoors. I take her role as a positive canine ambassador very seriously. And we’ve heard “We used to allow dogs but after one (pooped on the floor; bit someone; jumped up on the furniture; started a land war in Asia; choose one), we had to ban them” too many times.
So I’ll try to be better about using rewards properly with Honey. And hopefully she’ll continue being her usual sweet self.
Welcome to First Monday’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier, Travels with Barley and Wag ‘n Woof Pets. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below. Our theme for this month is rewards but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long.