Rat Terrier cocking her headA black nose pokes into my home office door followed by big, charcoal blue ears over liquid brown eyes. Belle steps halfway into the room, cocks her head, and softly whimpers. She knows I can’t resist her charm. “Uh huh,” I mumble, “it’s past time for bed. Just need to finish this one . . . .” She wags her charcoal blue nubbin of a tail and stares at me, melting my resolve. Maybe that one thing can wait until morning. She sweetly cocks her head again. That’s it, I’m done.

My dog reminding me to go to bed when I stay up too late is a side effect from positive reinforcement training and has now been reinforced as a desirable behavior itself. This happy accident began with a frustrating situation. For different reasons depending on the dog, my preference is for them to sleep at night in bed with me or in a crate in my bedroom, again depending on the dog. When I used to head to bed, I would spend five minutes calling or going to get each dog. I would think, “Why don’t they just come when I call? They know this is the routine.”

Sometimes I am really slow.

So one day I finally remembered that I do dog training for a living. Oh, right! And that I’m supposedly smarter than dogs because of my big ole wrinkly brain. So I finally used that brain to test positive reinforcement of the behavior I wanted (tails in bed in ten seconds!) and used my opposable-thumbs advantage to open the refrigerator to procure dog-approved steak bits. I did not lure them with steak bits as a bribe. I called the dogs as usual. Three of the seven at the time showed up. They got steak. I went to get the others, who did not get steak. Only one night later, I called the dogs and the three original steak-earners sped to bed, drawing three more with their enthusiasm. The third night, the holdout dog trundled along with the others. His eyes nearly popped out of his skull when I handed over a steak bit as he settled into his crate.

For a while now, the six resident dogs get a bit of food every night for showing up in the bedroom at bedtime. I no longer call them. The new cue is the office light going out, whereupon they beat me to the bedroom before I’ve fetched any food. I love that dogs can get so excited about what is the exact same tidbit every night. Now I think, “This is ridiculously easy. Why didn’t I do this in the first place?”

I didn’t do it in the first place because my big ole entitled ego was in the way. By golly, those dogs should come when I call. Not because I made an effort to communicate what I really wanted in a way a whole other species could understand. Not because I was smart enough to think ahead and use good timing. Not because I was willing to pay them with something they enjoy. But because I said so. “Because I said so” can work, but compliance is based on fear of violence, not on a trusting respect. It’s corrosive to both dog and human and doesn’t give me a happy bedtime routine with dogs who feel safe with me.

Rat Terrier with toyThe first time I heard positive reinforcement trainers called cookie pushers, I was stung by the derisive tone, as intended. Now I find the humor in a label fabricated from a lack of education. It’s not about the cookie. Beyond my simplistic bedtime example (Most training requires more work and planning.), it’s about knowledge of dog body language and the principles of learning, the ability to arrange the environment for desirable outcomes, the forethought to create small bricks of behavior before cementing them together into a big brickwork of behavior, the learned skill of precise timing, patience, and more. For sure I’m going to use cookies as a consequence for performance because they’re already a primary reinforcer. I don’t have to do extra training to create sufficient interest in consequences that aren’t already loaded with feel-good associations. I’d feel silly adding extra work when I can just use well-timed food.

I prefer food for teaching most new behaviors, but I do use all kinds of things my dogs want as reinforcers for behavior I want. Opening a door they want to cross through, praise, play, toys, ear skritches, enthusiasm, inviting body language, and on and on. The dogs who are bonded to me tend to find my laughter rewarding in some situations.

My laughter has inadvertently reinforced useful behaviors like the overly dramatic swipe at the shop bell on the back door (which I can now hear from anywhere in the house) or the flat paw press with gradually increasing pressure on my leg (no scratching for attention and now I teach it as an alert). Laughter has also inadvertently reinforced clever terrier naughtiness. I know I reinforced it because it happened again. With flair and tail wags. Fortunately, minor mistakes are easy to fix since I just spend my energy reinforcing a more preferred behavior.

Rat Terrier walking on loose leashMy dog was walking ahead of me on leash one day when a man called out, “Which one is the boss? Har har har.” I laughed, too, because my intention is for more cooperation rather than either of us bossing the other around. What he didn’t know was that Nicki walks close beside me as taught when cued once. When we aren’t in a place where that’s needed, I like to go out as a walking guide, letting her explore at her speedy pace but within road shoulder boundaries. When I’m training polite, loose leash walking, I ask the dog for a walk beside me for a bit (my walk) followed by the reward of whatever meandering sniff or jog the dog likes for a bit (their walk). I sometimes do this with Nicki to maintain the polite leash walking behavior. But mainly I like for her to walk in front of me because her prancing tush is so freaking cute.

happy Rat TerrierWhenever I can solve a behavior issue – from a slow sit to injurious aggression – using intellect instead of intimidation to meet the needs of the dog and to meet my needs, that is exceedingly rewarding to me. If I can’t create and execute a plan using my current knowledge base, then I need to expand the knowledge and learn new skills. When my dogs are partners in the teaching game, we get satisfying walks and the freedom to offer new behaviors. And I now get the cutest charcoal blue bedtime reminder.

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