They say you can’t teach an old dog a new trick. I say you can, if you do it the right way. Whether you have a mature dog or a young puppy, applying the proper training method will provide you both with a great relationship and a happy life for many years.
Before you start your training, the first thing you may think about is using TREATS. Right?
You may say to yourself – I must get treats to be able to train my dog. Because there is no way that the training will work without it, my dog will not be able to focus on me. I have seen this done before. I have been told this is the way to go. Everybody does it!
I am here to tell you, this is not the right approach to train your dog. It is not true that treats are an effective way to train your dog, or that they are necessary for your dog to be able to focus on you. As a matter of fact, it has the opposite effect.
Many aspects in our lives have fundamentally changed, such as society, technology, medicine or the educational system. But common dog training methods seem to be stuck in the past. We are still applying the few basic training methods that have been used for hundreds of years. Science around dog training has not been updated or improved, instead, we keep recycling the same outdated ideas repeatedly, despite the fact that we are getting the same results, or worse! Some of these outdated methods include the use of treats, domination, aversive tools like shock collars, or the application of force. And all of them with the objective of teaching or training dogs.
Fact is, we don’t educate ourselves enough about dog psychology, instead we invest in treats, tools or physical and mental force. In my opinion, the reason that millions of dogs sitting in shelters all over the world is because we still depend on these outdated and cruel methods. We continue to hope to get results and when we fail, we give up on the dogs and surrender them to the shelters. This false hope results in shelters working beyond their maximum capacity, and unfortunately in some countries the dogs often pay the ultimate price, euthanasia.
Let’s take a look at the basic food instincts of our dogs.
Dogs are desperate to make the connection with us! But because we don’t understand their needs, we distract them or disconnect from them by using treats or tools that have no meaning for dogs, so can’t make the connection with us.
Food and treats are powerful drivers in your dog’s life. They are the major player of basic survival instincts. But dogs don’t affiliate them with learning something new, or connecting with humans. Food, and more importantly treats have their time and place. But when used inadequately, your dog’s instinct is to focus on the treat rather than the task, or on what the real value is – YOU.
If you want to connect with your dog, you need to make a personal, deep connection first without having anything in between that could distract or bother you and your dog. Especially if you consider your dog a family member.
Many people and even professionals will tell you that dogs are motivated by treats and food. But there are two types of dogs; the ones who love food and those who don’t care about food. In general, if a piece of food is in front of any dog, he may end up doing anything, depending on how hungry he is. This is a normal and natural, basic survival response from a dog.
The common idea that a dog is motivated by food is only true because he may love food. That’s all. That does not mean that he is responding to the task asked of him, or that he understands the exercise that you offer. He is responding to the temptation. If a dog is a food lover and you tease him with food constantly, you get the reverse effect because you are stressing him out and it is agitating him. He is not focused on the task given, but on the food. I go as far as to say that this is cruel to the dog.
Treats may be used for rewarding the dog for being a composed, well behaved individual. However, I do not recommend using treats for training or for attempting to connect with them. When treats are being used to implement a changed behaviour, the dog tends to connect to it through his survival instincts and hunger related situations only. This is especially true if the dog has experienced hard times getting food as a puppy or at a young age. Furthermore, when treats are being used with an unbalanced and misbehaving dog, that dog will misread the idea of the treat and the techniques as being rewarded for misbehaving, or getting rewarded for no reason.
There are also dogs that are not interested or motivated by food at all. I have come across many dogs that are not interested in treats, including my own dog. Dog owners of these types of dogs tend to force their dogs to love the treats, eat it and respond to the command. Obviously these dogs are not interested and so they are not responding to it. Instead, they are looking and wanting other forms of motivation and connection with their owners.
New studies have shown that dogs prefer praise more than food. What this mean is that dogs are asking us to use something else to train them. After all, training dogs is basically making a connection with them. Without any connection, we are not able to communicate with them or train them. Dr. Gregory Berns has done several studies and experiments on dogs utilizing MRI technology, to study the brain activities while conducting the MRI. He offered food to reward the dogs, and he noticed that the dog’s brain reward systems were active and responding not to the food, but to the person who offered it. The person who was giving the food was the main reason why the dog was performing the task, NOT the food.
Think about it. For instance, pay attention to homeless people who have dogs. They don’t use treats or food to bond or train their dogs. Yet, they are some of the best behaving dogs in our society. These dogs follow their human without a leash, they don’t bark, they don’t misbehave! Why is that? Because they have a natural deep connection.
The results of Dr. Berns studies are huge. This changes the way we look at dogs and dog training in general, and how humans and dogs have been bonded for centuries. It gives a fresh and new way of looking at our relationship with our dogs, and it provides us with an opportunity to change and update the training format for dogs.
A well behaved dog is the result of a dog’s deep connection with its human!
So, you may ask, what do I use to train my dog instead of treats? My answer is, use yourself. Use what I call natural rewards to a dog and to you. These are praise, play and affection. They are not things; they are emotions and feelings that you and your dog need to tap into. It is a deep form of connection and reward. It is a lot easier and more effective when you don’t rely on things and don’t use objects. Dogs are naturally born with the intention of play, and all dogs love to be praised both verbally and physically. Dogs love it when you share your affection with them.
If you apply these natural forms of reward with purpose and intent, you will change the way you act around your dog, you will change your life, your dog’s life and everyone around you. Life for you and your dog will have a new meaning and becomes naturally focused. You connect with your dog in ways your dog loves and understands. It takes longer and it takes commitment, but the results are amazing and very rewarding.
How do we get there? There are two ingredients for proper dog training, time and knowledge. You need to invest time daily and regularly to learn everything about your dog’s behaviour. His natural instincts, his likes and dislikes, and also you need to learn how to use play, praise and affection in the right way to effectively train your dog. These are the two most vital things that most dog owners and humans in general don’t focus on. In today’s world, it’s easy to be distracted by external influences such as technology. We are looking for everything faster and easier. But that’s not how nature works. Dogs can help us to change our focus.
Two basic reasons why we want to train dogs and how to do it.
One reason is to teach them a new task like the sit command and the other one is to change a dog’s behaviour, like to stop barking at all things, all the time. Let’s say you want to teach your dog the sit command. This command is the simplest one because a dog does it naturally. You simply praise your dog every time he sits, which can happen hundreds of times a day naturally. But let’s use a more challenging command, the recall command, or teaching a dog to come to you when you call him.
Here is how you do it. You ask your dog to sit and stay. Then you walk away form your dog, turn around and ask him to come to you. You do this exercise at home in an environment with no major distractions. When your dog comes to you, you reward your dog with lots of mini play sessions and praise. Your dog will love the interaction he gets from you. That is the most valuable reward for your dog, the focus, the interaction and the time you spend on him. You are investing time and knowledge in your dog, you establish that much needed deep connection, resulting in your dog wanting to come to you at all times.
In case of changing a dog’s behaviour, you first must understand that a dog always wants to live a healthy and happy life. Misbehaviour or being unbalanced is rooted in their upbringing and previous experiences, and it is stressful to them. And while they want to change, the only way they can is by having an environment that is ideal, and by having someone who they can trust and believe that they are here to help. If your dog is not changing its behaviour, it might be because you haven’t established that required deep connection and relationship with your dog yet. Or you are not providing the perfect environment to encourage change. If a dog is barking it is a sign that your dog is stressed. Stress is the main cause of all bad behaviour. Also, your dog is not able to get cues from you.
For instance, if your dog is always barking at everything, it might be that your dog is not focused on you and it is making decisions on its own in a human society. Dogs hate that. Unlike humans, dogs want to be told what to do and how to do it. You need to teach your dog and show him how to live in a human society. If you allow your dog to make decisions on his own, your dog is getting stressed out, therefore he needs to solve the issue that stresses him by barking and announcing it to you and others. They are announcing, I am stressed. Leave me alone. Go away, you stress me. Also, it is well known that a stressed dog will refuse food. What does that tell us? Food is not the main motivation for a dog.
A dog has stress because the human has not taken the time to teach the dog how to solve problems. The human and the dog need to invest time and share knowledge with each other. By understanding and accepting these concepts, you will agree that you don’t need treats, tools, aversive tools, force or domination to teach, train or rehabilitate your dog. You need to invest time and establish the deeper connection with your dog organically.
Focus on these ideas and start implementing them to yours and your dog’s daily routine. The results will change your lives!
About Saro Boghozian:
Saro Boghozian is a certified, expert dog trainer, coach, author and YouTube creator. Saro is the owner of Jonah’s Ark Doggie Center and Saro Dog Training. Author of the book, “a dog’s five essential needs” and Creator of YouTube channel Saro Dog Training where he shares dog training tips and much more.