For Some Dogs a Grunt is Enough Reward

I was once writing an article  for K9 Magazine about how to stop dogs begging for food and why treat training (where the owner uses a food treat to ‘bribe’ the dog in to good behaviour all the time) can often be doomed to failure with certain dogs.

It reminded me of one of my very earliest awe inspired moments with a top, top dog trainer. A HPR man (he trained Pointers and Setters – Hunt, Point, Retrieve dogs).

I stayed at his cottage up in the northest part of northern Scottish land. In that time, he barely said a word to me. He was, I found out, a quiet type. Suited me.

In the morning when we first went out with his dogs, I had my tiny mind blown at just how adoring his dogs were toward him. From the get-go, he never said a word to them. He silently strode about the moorland with his dogs following him as if he was God himself. They really did think he was the very centre of their universe. I may as well have been invisible. These dogs never paid me even the most minute glance. HE was IT as far as they were concerned.

He put his dogs to work, using whistle commands only, and I got a great lesson. Less, in the way of noise, is more when it comes to dogs.

In the afternoon we did some actual training on a young dog (8 months old).

What struck me was the reward part of his process. A soft grunt, a very light touch under the dog’s chin and BOY that was enough for that dog to just melt.

I had to ask: “Is that it?” “That’s all you do to reward them?”

“Yes. At this age, they know when they’ve done good.” “When they’re very young puppies, I’m a little more animated.”

I imagined his version of animated is probably quite different to mine!.

He did explain to me that constant white noise in the dog’s ear is the enemy to getting sharp, decisive response from the dog.

He went on to give a description of two teachers and their different approach to the same pupils.

Teacher one comes in to the class. The students are rowdy. The teacher quietly tells them to be quiet. They ignore him. He raises his voice slightly “quiet people”. They ignore. He raises his voice some more. No response. He eventually yells. He gets a reaction.

What did the class learn?

The teacher only ‘means it’ when he yells. The first few instructions were just meaningless noises.

Teacher 2 comes in to teach the same students.

The class is rowdy.

He tells them to please be quiet. They ignore him. His response is to immediately walk around the class and hand detention slips to every pupil who had not listened to his instruction. Quietly, never raising his voice.

Guess what? The teacher who yelled, ultimately, had nowhere further to go. He’d reached his limit on the warnings. The quiet teacher didn’t need to get animated. He made a request, it was ignored, he took action and issued an immediate consequence. In future, when teacher 2 quietly asks his class to give him their attention, I’d imagine he’d get an immediate response. The same principle is true of reward.

My dog trainer friend thought the same way. He made it so his voice was used very economically. When he gave a command, it meant something. When he gave a reward, it meant something.

I’ve tried to incorporate his methods in the way I have trained dogs. To be quiet, to be calm, to reward at the right times but not to make a massive song and dance about it. Fair enough, I do go over and above a grunt in letting my dogs know I’m pleased with them – perhaps I’m just too much of a soft hearted soul not to – but I will always remember the lessons I learned on that Scottish hillside.

Lesson 1: White noise and constant, meaningless jibber jabber will ensure the effectiveness of your voice will wear off.

Lesson 2: If you issue a command that the dog understands and it is ignored, don’t issue the command again – that will only teach them that they didn’t mean it first time round.

Lesson 3: Reward, to a dog, is subjective. If you bring your puppy up on the belief that reward for good behaviour is a peanut butter covered dog biscuit, then as they get older you may struggle to get them to understand that a pat on the head is just as meaningful. A reward is positive reinforcement for a desired behaviour. That doesn’t mean the dog has a reward system based on the same values as our own – otherwise we’d need to be issuing them with six figure bonuses each Christmas for their restraints in not destroying our entire house.

Economy of noise. Well timed, meaningful rewards. Willingness to reinforce a command with an action.

Great lessons. Don’t be ignored just because you talk too much. Make your words count, your rewards count and make sure the noises you make toward your dog resonate with them. Personally, I wouldn’t consider a soft grunt and a gentle stroke under the chin much of a reward for spending my entire day criss-crossing hundreds of yards of challenging Scottish moorland. Or maybe I would. Depends who’s grunting at me I guess.

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