It is absolutely possible to have a well-trained dog without the use of choke chains or shock collars!

My current dog, who is now 4 years old, hikes off-leash and comes when called. Normally, I do not carry treats with me. Do I sometimes have to “tune him up” when he gets slow in his recalls? Yes, I do! But because I train with rewards it is a fun process that not only speeds up his recalls, but also deepens our bond.

I travel with him too. I can tell him to stay in a hotel lobby while I walk into the food court for my free continental breakfast. He doesn’t get special rewards for that any more either – and I don’t share my muffin with him. He will also stay at my side upon command when walking through a crowd. Sometimes, I have a ball tucked under my arm or cookies in my pocket, but most of the time I rely on relationship and my earlier training, which was heavily rewarded with food, toys, praise and play.

The kind of rewards you use and the way you use them does matter! And, I’ll cover that. But first, I want to address the two most common misconceptions about using treats and other rewards in training.

Common misconceptions about using treats in training:

  1. Using food in training will require that you always carry treats, or the dog won’t comply. This is true if you do not have a plan for getting cookies out of your hand early in the process. The following tips will help you avoid this trap:
  • As your dog understands what you want, start to ask for more work for the cookie. For example, instead of treating every “sit” only treat the “sit” when visitors arrive, because that is harder than a “sit” when the house is quiet. Or ask for multiple behaviors such as “come” “down” “stay” before giving a reward.
  • Get the food out of your hand and off of your body early in the training process. Set the treats on a counter, for example, and reach for one after your dog does what you’ve asked.
  • Put the treats in an unexpected place. Like on a fence post, deck railing or book shelf. Call your dog, ask for a behavior and if he complies, grab a treat from the stash and reward. If your dog does not comply, grab the baggie or container full of treats and show your dog what he missed and then walk away. Your dog will learn, “even though I don’t see or smell treats on my human, they might have access to them, so I better show up and comply or I will miss out!”
  • Switch over to real life rewards in place of a treat. For example, ask your dog to sit and wait for permission to jump into the car to go for a ride. The reward is the opportunity to jump in the car, which is probably more powerful then a treat! If your dog does not comply, then he does not get to jump into the car. Wait until he gets it right before allowing him to jump into the car.
  1. A hot dog or other yummy treat will not lure a dog away from something exciting when asked to come-when-called. If you are attempting to lure the dog with a treat, you have not used rewards properly in training – that is called a bribe.

How to use rewards when teaching your dog to comewhen-called

Think in terms of adrenaline and excitement. Adrenaline is a substance released in the body in response to a strong emotion. When your dog is super excited and carrying on about the human (potential new friend) across the street, there is adrenaline involved in that process. Your dog’s reaction is emotional. His rational brain is dampened down, while the emotion takes over. If you expect to call your dog away from something exciting like that, your training will have to produce a “conditioned emotional response” to “Fido, COME!”

What is a conditioned emotional response? In layman’s terms, it means that when your dog hears you call, his body floods with adrenaline, he stops thinking and automatically turns and comes to you without weighing his options.

Tips for creating high excitement and a conditioned emotional response using rewards:

  • Every dog will be motivated differently. Some dogs are excited by a game of fetch or tug and some by food. And most all dogs are incredibly enthusiastic about a game of hide and seek with you hiding and them finding you. Find a combination that works for your dog.
  • Whatever you do, infuse it with a ton of energy and praise. Your dog MUST respond with energy and excitement to your reward. Praise your dog during training to the point of feeling like a silly kid. LOTS of praise. Pair the praise with super rewards during training and eventually, your praise will cause your dog to get excited even without the food or toy.
  • Dogs are predators. They are stimulated by fast movement and high pitched, staccato sounds. You can increase the value of your food reward by turning it into prey…moving it fast. Either tossing it, so they have to chase it, or holding it in your hand and running with it.

Transfer training from your living room to the big outdoors

Practice makes perfect, or does it? Well, PERFECT practice makes perfect! Successful repetition is key. That being said, practice in easy environments and gradually move to more and more difficult situations. Another way to look at it is moving up in school from kindergarten to graduate school. Your quiet house is kindergarten.  Your yard might be elementary school. In your yard with the neighbor dog at the fence might be junior high school. Out in a public setting might be high school. A dog across the street might be junior college. Out in the woods scenting a deer might be college and out in the woods seeing a deer might be graduate school.  Your dog MUST have hundreds of successful repetitions with a rich reinforcement history in each grade before moving up.

Keep your dog tuned up!

All training requires maintenance and upkeep. When you notice your dog not responding as promptly as he once did, it is time to take out some rewards, set up some training situations and tune up your training!