Motivation – it drives all species

In my dog training business, I’m often asked about how to handle “stubborn” dogs. To such questions, I always reply that the dogs are not likely to be stubborn, but rather, insufficiently motivated. While we are more likely to insist that our children do things that they don’t want to do, I believe that the manner of convincing them can be similar in many situations.

Playing with our turtle, Oogway, a few weeks ago, I was very surprised to see how quickly he was able to move to catch a live cricket that I was feeding to him. In spite of his slow and deliberate movements most of the time, I realized that he was able to move fairly quickly when sufficiently motivated.

I remember years ago, at my niece’s birthday party at around 6 years of age, someone gave her a gift with a lot of that Styrofoam popcorn in it. Like a typical 6-year-old, she purposely emptied it all over the living room floor. From then on, every bit of paper and wrapper and packing material was strewn on the floor. It was quite a mess, and I was thinking that my poor sister would have to clean it up when she called everyone’s attention. Handing out two large bags, she challenged the boys versus the girls to see who could pick up the most trash off the floor. Within about one minute, the floor was completely cleaned, and the winning team enjoyed their special toys shortly thereafter.  This was not about force, but about motivation!

Shelby helps Aba

Sufficiently motivated, a child may even clean up after the dog!

In traditional (old school) training, “correction collars” were used to convince the dog that doing the wrong thing is bad, therefore they should do the right thing. But, we have since learned, that this is going about it wrong! (Pun intended.) What do you suppose would have happened if my sister had threatened the kids with a punishment (i.e. no cake) if they had not picked up the wrappings? I suspect that they would still have picked it up, but I’m also quite certain that they would not have done so in record time.

Training is about motivation; motivation can be in the form of punishment or rewards, and both can be effective. However, as demonstrated above, motivation by potential rewards often produces much more enthusiastic results, with learners who are more inclined to do what you ask the next time because it was so much fun the last time. And this doesn’t just apply to children, but to dogs (and other species) as well.

A common misconception among trainers who do not understand modern methods is that positive equals permissive, but this need not be the case! Rewarding good behavior does not mean that we cannot punish bad behavior. However, rewarding good behavior should reduce the incidents of bad behavior, and thus allow us to punish less. Furthermore, punishment does not need to be physical or painful in order to work, as evidenced by the power of time outs, or removal of rewards, for both children and dogs.

Michael training Mancha

With proper motivation (and supervision), a child can train a dog.

Whether you are working with children, dogs, chickens, cats, turtles… consider your tactic the next time you meet any resistance. I’m not saying to become permissive, but remember to reward the positive, and, whenever possible, encourage rather than coerce. Then you’ll be well on your way to getting enthusiastic responses to your requests from the two legged as well as the four legged members of your family.

Sometimes she has the attention span of…. Oh look, a squirrel!

With the holidays fast approaching, and many children’s movies premiering, we have been considering taking our 2 ½ -year-old daughter to a movie theater for the first time.  I’m apprehensive about her attention span, which often appears to be about that of a butterfly, though she has been improving since beginning preschool. Keeping her seated throughout an entire family meal, for instance, is a constant battle, as is sitting through a church service.

The topic of short attention spans does not escape my dog loving friends, either.  While older dogs may be able to focus in on things for longer periods, younger dogs are often flighty and it can be a challenge to maintain their focus. Put young children together with young dogs and the challenge more than doubles!

Fetch game

Fetch is a great way to capture kids’ and dogs’ attention.

To my students, I recommend that they keep their dogs’ training sessions to a maximum of 3-5 minutes in length. While many dogs can concentrate for longer than that, the majority – particularly the younger dogs – start to show what we call “displacement behaviors” such as scratching at imaginary fleas, or suddenly finding some interesting smell on the ground directly in front of them when they are feeling overly pressured. Additionally, for the dog to want to work, it is ideal to keep sessions short, leaving the dog wanting more, rather than working them to mental exhaustion.

Similarly, time outs, for those who use them, should also be relatively short. For a child, it is recommended to time them out for as many minutes as their age in years. For dogs, a 30-second to 2-minute time out suffices. Given that dogs are estimated to have the intelligence of approximately two-year-old children, this certainly makes sense.

All smiles

The triple “watch me”

But what about working with children and dogs together? When I take my daughter to sports practices such as agility and flyball, I make certain to bring a variety of toys along to keep her entertained. For while she loves watching the dogs work, she can only focus on them for so long before she becomes bored and looks for other things to do. So I do my best to divide my time between her and the dogs so that I can keep everyone appropriately occupied throughout the training sessions.

As mentioned above, to teach my dogs to increase their attention spans, I try to leave them wanting more of the things that I like to do with them, such as flyball, agility, and tug games.  I’m not certain that this will work with a toddler, but it is a harmless tactic that may be worth a try. Meanwhile, I’ll monitor her attention span, along with my dogs’, and attempt not to bore them all too much with my desire to keep on working.