I hear it all the time: “My dog won’t listen if I don’t have food!”
One of the first things I teach students in my Smart Dog University group dog training classes is to get the food out of their hands. I don’t want any of my students leaving as Smart Dog U class uttering that phrase! The mistake is an easy one to make and a lot of people don’t know the hole they’re digging until it’s too late. And when they make their way to my classes, it takes a little bit of un-training to get their dog back on the right track.
Clicker training using food as the reward is a terrific way to train. However, if your dog listens only if you have food, that’s not very efficient, right?
This is all about how to make dog training stick — so your dog listens whether you have food (or the clicker) or not.
Dogs learn what we teach them. If we teach them that good things happen only when food and the clicker is around, like good, smart dogs they’ll believe us. If the food and the clicker come out only during “training time” and it’s the only time good behavior (listening to you) works for your dog, then that’s the only time you’re going to get it.
“But I want the dog to listen to me all the time! I don’t want to have to have the food for the rest of my life!”
I hear you. And I have your solution. Keep reading, grasshopper.
Instead of individual structured dog training sessions, make LIFE a training session.
Your dog wants to go outside, ask him to do something like sit. As soon as he sits, tell him he’s a good boy and open that door. Sitting when asked = door opens.
Maybe your dog wants an ice cube from the freezer. Another training opportunity! Ask him for a nose touch. The instant he touches your hand, tell him he’s a good boy and give him that ice. Touching your hand when asked = ice cube.
You know your dog loves to play tug. Call him to you and when he gets there, whip that tug toy out of your back pocket and play an impromptu game of tug. Coming when called = fun games.
You’re seeing a pattern here, I’m sure.
Look, you’re going to do lots of fun stuff with your dog every single day. Why not work training in right then and there. No need to carve out 30 minutes every day for a single training session. Have dozens of mini (single!) training sessions.
Here’s what it looks like in real life.
You’re ready to go for a walk. Leash is ready, you’ve got poop bags, your sunglasses and shoes are already on. All you’ve got to do is get the dog and head out. Great, you’re ready for your mini Recall Training Session. Here’s how you do it:
- Call your dog to you in a happy voice.
- When he comes to you: “Good boy!” as you clip the leash on and head out the door.
- If he doesn’t come, don’t worry. Head out all by yourself. Maybe you go just to the end of the driveway and come back. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re not repeatedly calling your dog to you to go for a walk.
The beauty of this is that the good stuff for the dog depends on him doing something for you.
It’s a simple equation.
You ask + dog does = dog gets.
Think of all the times a day you can work this into your life! It’s crazy!
- If you want to give your dog a piece of your toast
- Before you take your dog for a walk
- If your dog wants to get up on the sofa with you
- If you want to give your dog a belly rub
- When you want to play with your dog
- When your dog wants to play with you
- If your dog wants into the (fenced) backyard to chase the birds, squirrels, leaves
- Meal time
- Treat time
- Play time
- Fun time
- Snuggle time
- The list is endless – put anything on your list that your dog likes, enjoys, anticipates.
It’s important to note that you’re asking your dog to do stuff that’s really easy, that he’s already good at.
You don’t want to ask your dog to come when called from the yard if he’s barking at the neighbor – that’s too hard! He’ll never have a chance to get it right and will lose the opportunity to see that coming when called can lead to a walk, or breakfast, or a play session. So be sure your dog has at least an 80% chance of getting it right before you ask for it.
There’s a bonus!
Not only are you teaching your dog that training can happen anywhere, anytime, and without food – that’s good all in itself.
But do you see what we’re also doing here? We’re transitioning from food rewards to what I call real life rewards. Because if you get rid of the clicker, but still need food all the time, you’re not really making much progress, right?
Here’s where I tend to always use food: Coming when called, especially when the dog comes to me in the face of distractions. In our yard, the distractions are squirrels, neighbors walking down the street, or loose dogs. (Our yard is fenced, but the loose dogs can come right up to our fence and I have no control over where they run [which is usually up and down our fence line, guaranteeing barking, racing, and an exhilaratingly good time for both dogs involved], or how long they stay.)
In just about every other instance, though, I’ve substituted real life rewards for both the clicker and the food.
The dogs now think I’m a constant source of good stuff (which I am) so they’re keen on listening to me when I ask them for anything.
Quick! Tell me what two or three things your dog can do easily. Now: tell me two or three things you can do for your dog when he does those things for you when you ask. See how easy this is?
Super simple summary:
Using things your dog is already good at, ask him for one of those things before you’re going to do something nice for him (feed him, walk him, pet him, etc.). When he does what you ask, give him access to the food, walk, pets, etc.
Lather, rinse, repeat and you’re in business! Be ready for a dog who thinks the world revolves around you.