Tip Eight From the Expert: Tipping the balance in your favour
From the series 10 Tips on How to Form a Lifelong Bond with your Dog
Having waxed lyrical about how incredible dogs are at understanding and loving us, there will inevitably come a time in your young dog’s life when you’re the least of their priorities! You’ll know when your dog hits their teens, they won’t listen to anything you say and will want to be anywhere and everywhere except with you.
The single most important thing to think about during this stage is motivation. This seems obvious but do bear with me because it is easily the easiest thing to fix, but the one most people don’t even think about.
If I asked you, as a teenager, to leave the party and come home for 10pm, you would quite rightly tell me to shove it, you’re happy where you are. If I asked you, as a teenager, to leave the party and come home for £50 you’d probably come. This example is an illustration, but there is a critical difference between reward (essential) and bribery (to be avoided).
A reward is when you give a positive consequence for an action. For example, Rey sits when I say sit and out comes the chicken. A bribe is when you say: “I’ll give you this if…” so the chicken comes out before the request to sit.
The difference may seem negligible, but it isn’t to Rey. If I bribe her, she very quickly says: “No chicken = no can do, sorry!” Whereas if I reward her, even if that reward is variable – sometimes chicken, sometimes nothing but praise, mostly something in between – it is always worth her while coming to find out because she might just hit the jackpot.
Interestingly studies show that animals actually learn better with this kind of jeopardy – they’re more responsive if they only sometimes get the jackpot, presumably because it’s more special if it’s occasional. I love chocolate cake but if you gave me one every day you’d probably have to find something else to motivate me after a week (OK, a month).
So, when you ask your teenage dog to come to you when they are having fun with their mates, you’re asking a lot so you need to give a lot in return, all the time. Something really good and lots of it: a big handful of cooked chicken or a big handful of hotdog sausages (seriously).
Many people understand the need to give something ‘high value’ but only give a tiny bit, and to the dog that’s just not worth it. Adjust dinner accordingly so you don’t have to worry about the old waistline. Your purse takes a hit at first but this isn’t forever, this is simply to instil a very strong emotional response – do what I ask and amazing things happen.
This emotional response stays when the intensity and frequency of the reward starts to reduce. Eventually, you can go back to offering that little treat most of the time, but never forget to randomly give the jackpot. Don’t forget your dog is weighing up
“do I leave the party for a tiny dry old biscuit? No”
“Do I leave the party for a great big juicy steak? Hell yes”.
Tip Nine discusses the importance of consistency and will be published as usual next Friday.
Rachel Leather – Animal Behaviourist
For the last 12 years, Rachel has been helping others understand and manage the behaviour of dogs, cats and horses. After studying Psychology at Cardiff University, she went on to complete her Masters degree in animal behaviour at the University of Exeter. Rachel then ran a degree programme in Applied Animal Behaviour, teaching others the knowledge requirements to become a behaviourist, and set up a referral clinic to enable her students to gain practical experience of behaviour consultations. She enjoyed this so much that, although no longer lecturing, continues to see behaviour cases on referral from vets and runs CPD classes for vets and other professionals.
You can discover more about Rachel’s professional work here.