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Common Misunderstandings About Training and Behavior

This month I thought I’d address some of the most common misunderstandings about dog training and behavior. In doing so I hope to enhance your relationship with your dog.

Will Work for Free

Time and time again people ask me when they can wean their dogs off treats. I don’t understand the logic behind this question, nor the Scrooge-like desire of some people to stop rewarding their dogs.
We ask dogs to fit into our lifestyles, to meet our expectations, to ignore their own natural impulses and desires, and to follow our many senseless (to them) rules. If your dog does something good or refrains from doing something you don’t like you should want to celebrate!

Yet it seems that people want their dogs to do their bidding without getting some sort of reinforcement in return. It’s interesting to me, because this is not how we humans operate; we expect to get paid for a job well done. Nor is it the way of the rest of the natural world. We mammals do what works for us to keep us healthy, happy, and alive. Behavior is driven by its results or consequence; life is inherently rewarding or punishing.

Dogs are wonderful creatures, but they are not mythical, altruistic beasts with no needs or desires of their own. Many people buy into the idea of the Lassie myth, which is perhaps where people get the idea that a dog should just inherently be loyal and obedient.

Please understand, your dog does not owe you “good” behavior. It’s your job as caregiver to both teach your dog what you want her to do and motivate her to see the relevance of your requests – via reinforcement or payment, if you will.

Perhaps when people say they don’t want to “always have to reward my dog” they mean they don’t want to have to prompt or lure a behavior forever in order for it to happen, and that they don’t want to have to bribe their dogs into good behavior.

That is understandable. However there is a difference between using a prompt or a lure to induce a new behavior and rewarding an appropriate behavior. The former comes before the behavior and the latter after. The former, the prompt, while an important part of teaching, should be weaned out of the picture (or request) as soon as possible, while a reward after a good performance will never be completely eliminated or else you risk greatly weakening or losing the behavior.  Lack of reinforcement of a behavior causes its extinction.

Now, even though a desired behavior must be reinforced frequently to maintain it, there is no reason the reward always has to be food-based. Life rewards include anything your dog enjoys, including but not limited to playtime, attention, sniffing, going for a walk or car ride, belly rubs, a game of chase or fetch, and so on. That said, food is an excellent reinforcer for most dogs and you’re going to feed every day anyway, so you may as well make use of that opportunity when you’re delivering the goods.
Perhaps simply integrating life rewards into your reinforcement routine will feel more honest and enriching to you. It certainly will help your requests make a lot of sense to your dog.


One of the other things people tend to say about dogs is that they are willful, stubborn, or being dominant. This is truly a sad interpretation of what is generally the result of human error.
I often record training sessions and classes. Watching video of training workshops/sessions (including my own) makes it apparent how uncoordinated and slow we humans are when it comes to training and the timing of our feedback and rewards. Our ape-ish ways are no match for canine cleverness and grace of motion. With our mismatched skill sets it’s amazing that dogs manage to learn anything at all from us!

I often say that dogs don’t generalize well and that’s why we have to painstakingly break things down into tiny exercises to teach with clarity. However, there are other reasons a dog might not be learning what you are trying to teach. Or perhaps it’s not that they don’t generalize well, but rather that they really just aren’t getting clear instruction most of the time. We humans are incredibly inconsistent.
We have such terrible and confusing habits as changing verbal cues (is it Off or Down?), changing the reward marker if we have one, and not telling the dog when she’s got it right. As I mentioned above we mostly don’t reward good behavior frequently enough to make the behavior important to the dog and then often make grand assumptions about what the dog “knows” – even though we’ve only taught the foundations and now expect perfect performance in Ph.D-level scenarios.

We often don’t properly engage and disengage when training or communicating with a dog. It’s important to respect the dog’s time and attention. If we check out or don’t follow through, the dog has no clear boundaries to adhere to – and most don’t really know when they are working or free.
Without clear communication we’ll never get solid, consistent behavior from a dog and it’s not willfulness that causes most training problems. Teaching is our responsibility.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.

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