Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why We (Usually) Can't Use Sex To Motivate Dogs

I really just used that title because it made me giggle, though it is true. I could tell you a story about working on a pig farm and a discussion on power tools and breeding pigs, but I'll leave it to your imagination (nobody was hurt).
I'm going to let you in on yet another dog trainer secret. I keep doing this because I really want what's best for your dog; you being educated is really great for your dog. Us dog trainers have a pretty good handle on motivators and how to use them to teach dogs. Really good dog trainers even know what motivates their human clients!

First, some basics about motivators. Every living thing has motivators- things that provide a reason or stimulus to do something. There are three basic elements of life that are important to all animals (even people): food, sex, and fear. There are pros and cons to each one:

Food: fast, fun, easy, allows quick learning in different situations, BUT you do have to learn how to fade out the food rewards and still have a strong behavior.
Sex: very motivating, fun, BUT it is not ideal for achieving quick learning, quick repetitions AND it requires another animal.
Fear: Changes behavior quickly, BUT the animal tends to over-generalize and have trouble learning distinctions when in a fearful state. Studies have also shown lingering effects of punishment based techniques (see resources).

It should come to no surprise to you to hear that I prefer to use food as a primary motivator and reinforcer in training, at least initially. I always teach my clients about fading food rewards, which you can read about in another post coming soon. To train your own dog, you have to understand what motivates him. Food is a solid motivator for all animals since they need it to survive. The only times a dog doesn't want food are when he is already full or is over-threshold and is going into fight/flight mode. When initially training a new behavior or cue, food is a wonderful way to keep your dog engaged, get quick repetitions (as long as you keep treats small), and keep the training enjoyable for you both.
Some dogs are differently motivated from the start; my buddy Darwin loves nothing in life more than his frisbee:
Catching a frisbee: 

Holding a frisbee: 

 Even when the snow is up to his belly: 

I have known dogs who like attention more than food, or the reward of running with another dog more than food. Motivators will not only vary by dog, but by situation. When a dog is in high-energy exercise like running an agility course, he may not want to stop to eat a treat (it's physiological), but will gladly play tug or fetch with his handler for a minute. It keeps him excited for the agility course and is a reward- perfect motivation! When a dog is in his home with minimal distractions, his own dry food or petting and attention from his humans may be sufficient to drive him. In class, with other dogs, smells and sounds, his humans will likely need a more tasty treat to keep their dog engaged and motivated while learning. When a dog is overstimulated and stressed, food will not be high on their priority list. If they are fight/flight mode, digestion is shut down and they will not stop if you toss a steak in front of them. Humans are the same way- if you are trying to escape a burning building, you probably will not stop to grab a slice of pizza from the fridge because food is literally the last thing on your mind. A good trainer will know this and actually wants to keep a dog from feeling this stressed while training, and in every day life. I'm not saying dogs have to have perfect lives where everything is handed to them, but the things that really upset them and make them freeze, growl, bark, bite- those should really be removed and reintroduced properly (read: gradually with the help of a certified trainer). A dog who is scared is not going to learn anything good; I know I keep saying this but only because it's so true. We want the best schools for our kids because it's the best environment, right? Free of undue stress, filled with teachers who want them to succeed, even if they learn differently than other students, right? Why not get the best for your dog? If you are enlisting the help of a trainer who lets your dog get into that stressful state time and time again, especially if they are adding in any coercive method, they are not really helping your dog. They are scaring or hurting your dog, no matter how it is sugar-coated or how many different ways they come up with to describe a shock, choke, or prong collar, it's still something that is meant to be uncomfortable to dogs. For more on reinforcers check out my post from a little while back.

Want to know more about motivators and why they make a difference to dogs? Check out the resources I read for this article!


Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, By Pamela Reid


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