The K9 Companion class began as an entry level training course for dogs that are 6 months or older. The concepts, however, can be used for all ages of dogs including puppies. The class introduces you to reward-based training techniques that will help you communicate to your dog a basic vocabulary of commands and will strengthen the bond you have with your dog to help make him or her a better house companion. Please review all the weeks because information in latter weeks make be useful immediately. Certainly there are various sequences in which the exercises may be taught and you should do what works best for you and your K9 Companion.

What Motivates Your Dog?

The idea of training with positive reinforcement is very appealing. After all, everyone likes a reward! But just what do dogs find reinforcing? And how can we use a dog’s preferences and desires to get him to do what we want?

Food: It’s probably the strongest reinforcer you can use. Like us, dogs need food to survive, and as hunters, they are hard-wired to work for it. When you harness a dog’s natural instincts by rewarding behaviors with food, you are tapping into something primal and potent. It’s getting down to basics with a dog, and it’s very effective.

What if your dog isn’t motivated by food? Then chances are he’s got food available all or most of the time. Not only is this not natural for dogs, with their short digestive tracts, but it also serves to reduce the value of food. And if something isn’t valuable, the dog won’t work for it.

So make food valuable to your dog. This doesn’t mean starving him, of course. But instead of free-feeding, provide two small, measured meals a day and leave the food down for no more than 10 minutes. Within a few days, most dogs clean their plates. Or eliminate meals and train off and on all day long, giving your dog his daily ration in exchange for practicing his behaviors with you. At the very least, ask for a sit before you put the food bowl down. After all, you control the dog’s access to food – you can choose either to waste that opportunity or to use it!

Toys: Whether or not an individual dog finds toys reinforcing depends on several factors, including breed or type of dog, background, availability of toys when the dog was a puppy, and individual personality. For dogs who love toys, they are a wonderful reinforcer. Reinforce a ball-crazy lab for sitting by letting her catch the tennis ball. Reward a dog who loves to tug with a short game. Again, making the toys and games valuable to the dog is the key to good performance.

Physical Affection: Most dogs love to be touched. If yours is one of them, you can certainly use petting as a reinforcer. However, petting is pretty general as reinforcers go and is used usually to express overall pleasure and approval. It’s probably better to stick to more precise reinforcers in training.

Praise: Many people think that dogs should be willing to work only for praise. But remember that dogs are not verbal creatures. They learn what some of our words mean by associating them with actions, but they will never understand them in the complex ways we do. Hence, praise is at best a conditioned reinforcer. Combined throughout the dog’s life with food, petting, toys, and other fun stuff, praise does come to mean "good things" to most dogs, but like petting, it’s a vague reinforcer more appropriate to expressing "I love you" than for reinforcing a sit/stay.

Self-Reinforcing Behaviors: Many of the things dogs find reinforcing are activities you’re probably not too fond of. For instance, most dogs find it reinforcing to eat garbage, jump up on people, lick their mouths, chase cats, and dig holes. Look at whot your dog is doing that you don’t like and see if they are getting reinforced for doing it.

Most important in the reinforcement game is to be sure that the reinforcers you are using are actually reinforcing for your dog (he likes them enough to work for them), and to vary your reinforcers as much as you can. This means not one but 5 kinds of treats. Not one but 3 different toys. Something new almost always seems better, just as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Be creative and be variable and you’ll have a dog who loves to play the training game with you!