Your opinion doesn’t count

I wrote last week that I recently purchased a copy of the updated, revised version of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels book. Ginger dog and I are planning to work through some of the exercises in the book this summer.

I’ve been reading through the first section of the book, which explains some basic (and important) information about dog training, such as essential equipment, organization and planning, training principles, problem solving, and more. Scattered through this section are little stories and quotes from both Sue and other trainers.

Here’s a quote I ran across recently that I really like. Of course, this concept is something I’ve discussed on the blog before, but Sue states it in a very nice, concise way:

“No matter what YOU want to use as a reward, remember that it’s the ANIMAL who decides what’s rewarding and what’s not. YOUR opinion doesn’t count.”

This is SO important to remember during training!

I recently followed a discussion on an online forum where someone was concerned because his dog had stopped taking treats during training sessions. He was training the dog in a new environment and, as he gave more details, it became clear that in this new environment there were many interesting things to look at, listen to, and do, all which were much more appealing to the dog than the trainer’s treats.

Now, this trainer has several options depending on the situation and his ultimate training goals. He could switch to a different kind of treat, he could figure out ways to use the things in the natural environment as rewards, he could move back to a not so challenging training environment, or he could make some other change to his training plan.

The important point here is that just because you think something should be a nice reward for your animal, does not guarantee that your animal will feel the same way. Also, what might be a great reward in one situation might not be a good choice in another situation.

Another story. I have one training video from several years ago where I was working with a rescue horse, teaching her to touch a target. I was using food as a reward, but I would also every now and then reach up and stroke her on the face and neck to let her know that she was doing just an exceptional job.

Later on, watching back through that video, I realized that every time I reached toward her face to stroke her, she would turn her head away slightly, trying to avoid my hand. Well, oops. In that situation, stroking her neck was definitely not a reward.

So, next time you are training, pay attention to what you are using as rewards. Forget about what you think is a good reward and really spend some time observing your animal’s behavior. Also remember, in different environments and situations, what used to be a reward might not be anymore. What does your animal really think about the different rewards you use during training?

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