Dogs are so attuned to our behavior. They gaze lovingly into our eyes, they know our moods, and they can even follow our pointing gestures. They read us so well; we sometimes assume they want nothing more than to make us happy. But that’s not the whole picture. Yes, your dog is interested in what you have to say, some breeds even more than others, but he also has his own needs to meet. And sometimes, what you want and what he wants are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
One of the tricks to living harmoniously with your dog is teaching him that he can get what he wants by giving you what you want. The first step is realizing that your dog is learning 24 hours a day, whether you are actively training him or not. This is because dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding, and your dog is behaving all day long, which means that rewards are happening, too. Your dog is constantly learning about what gets him food, playtime, attention, etc., and what doesn’t, whether you are having a formal training session or not. For example, every time you walk in the front door, your dog tries to get your attention to say hello. If jumping on you earns him a greeting, he will be sure to jump on you the next time you come home.
Make every moment you have with your dog an opportunity to teach him what you like. Scheduled training sessions are important, but it’s equally important to be on the lookout for good behavior all the time. Don’t focus on what he’s doing wrong, look for what he’s doing right. Every time you interact with your dog, or simply walk past him on your way through the room, you have a chance to teach him.
Simply strap a treat bag around your waist and fill it with delicious treats, stuff your pockets, or place treat containers around the house. Then every time you see your dog behaving in a way you like, praise him and offer a treat. It could be as simple as when he is lying quietly on the floor (he could be jumping on you instead) or sitting by the back door (he could have chosen to bark). The more you reinforce these good behaviors, the more your dog will repeat them. He is learning what you like and that those behaviors get him what he wants, too. Reward him enough for sitting or lying down, for example, and you will find he starts to offer these behaviors without being asked.
You don’t always have to use food. Anything your dog wants is a reward from his point of view, whether that’s playing with you, going for a walk, or simply getting the chance to go out in the yard to do his business. Remember the goal is to give your dog what he wants when he gives you what you want. So if he is sitting nicely by the door, snap on his leash and head outside, or if he calmly brings you a tug toy, play a game with him.
Of course, you can give your dog love, pets, treats, and any other reward whenever you want. You don’t have to wait for your dog to sit or give a specific behavior. You have to meet his emotional and physical needs, after all, and giving out rewards is fun. But remember that every time you offer a reward, you reinforce the behavior your dog is exhibiting at that time. Don’t reward behavior you don’t want. For example, if your dog is dragging you down the street on your walk, and you let him pull you to the next block, you have just rewarded his pulling. He got what he wanted, to go down the sidewalk, without giving you what you wanted, loose leash walking.
So, how do you prevent yourself from rewarding bad behavior? Especially when you need to get through your walk or get in your front door? Be proactive and prevent bad behavior in the first place. That might mean choosing a head halter or no-pull harness for your walks, or placing a baby gate at the front door. That will prevent the behavior you don’t want and give you plenty of time to develop a training program for building an alternative behavior you do want. All while you continue to reward your dog’s good choices throughout the day. In no time at all, you will have a dog that knows he can earn rewards by making you happy.