You Need a Large Toolbox

I met a wonderful family recently. They are puppy raisers for a guide dog school in the Northeast (one of the best assistance dog organizations that I am familiar with, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Yorktown Heights, NY). They told me a story that perfectly illustrates the importance of knowing and treating each dog as an individual.
The ability to lie still and just hang out is a crucial skill for service and guide dogs in particular, but, really, all dogs need to learn to do this. After all, we humans can rarely provide 24/7 entertainment and fun. Even if we could, this would be over-stimulating for the dog. Dogs need to learn how to calm themselves and just chill out.
These puppy raisers said that the way they had originally learned to teach dogs the importance of just being still (often using a cue like “settle”) was to give the dog food treats as rewards for lying quietly near them. For many dogs, this works well — the dog can initially be rewarded simply for lying down (when working on a strong “down”), and, very gradually, the rewards can be delayed until the dog has remained quiet for a few seconds, then 10 seconds, 15, etc. When the dog is able to relax in place for longer times, intermittent treats, with the interval getting longer, can reinforce this behavior and convince the dog that just lying there really isn’t so bad.
What was wrong with this approach? For many dogs, nothing. Then there were those extremely food-focused dogs. Funny how many of those are Labs and goldens — the very dogs that service and guide organizations use the most. Some of these dogs, it seems, would take to asking for food. The more independent ones would cut out the middleman entirely and start looking for dropped crumbs on the ground. These behaviors are annoying in any dog, but particularly unacceptable in a dog who works in public. These dogs need to learn to ignore tempting morsels in restaurants, supermarkets, and other places where there could be food on the floor.
So, the trainers came up with a solution: Reward the dog for lying quietly with a very gentle stroke along the dog’s back. Not active petting or interaction; simply a single, gentle, calming stroke. Again, for many dogs, this is indeed a desirable reward and something that will even deepen the calm, relaxed state the dog is in.
Then there are all of those other dogs. The ones that get wildly excited at the slightest stimulation. Even reaching toward these pups to stroke them is likely to be read as an invitation — and is more likely to elicit a play bow than a calm, relaxed dog. Or the dogs who regard touch as an invitation to cuddle or the ones who roll on their backs to solicit a belly-rub at the slightest hint that a hand is near. And don’t forget our analytical canines — the ones for whom touch is not rewarding, those whose social styles tend more toward more reserved contemplation of humans than actual up-close-and-physical contact.
You get the picture. This method of rewarding lying still is not going to work for all dogs — any more than food rewards would work for all dogs. That is exactly the point of using a cognitive approach to teaching dogs: Treat each dog as an individual. Starting with that essential principle, we can figure out which dogs to reward with food, which to reward with stroking — and which need something else entirely.
There is no one correct way to teach or reward any particular behavior, as my new friends learned. And individual dogs may respond to different rewards at different times. Applying this knowledge has made them better puppy raisers — and, I am sure, better people.
The methods and rewards are as varied as the dogs (and trainers) are. Be on the lookout for new ideas and ways of teaching or rewarding a dog. Every trainer needs a constantly expanding toolbox of techniques.

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