Get Your Dog to Start Doing Something

Come when called? Sit for their dinner? Walk politely next to you? There are many examples of behaviors we would like our dogs to do that they might not naturally do on their own.  

When learning to do something new, your dog will learn quickly to repeat things that cause positive consequences.

“I do A and I get B, so I will do A again in order to get B again!”

Teaching a new behavior is simply a matter of rewarding the behavior with something the dog wants so it happens more and more often.

What Is a Reward?

A “reward” is anything that your dog will work to get. They may work harder for some rewards than others or work for different rewards at different times or in different situations but rewards are worth seeking out. Your dog decides what is a reward, not you! If your dog begins to do more of the behavior you are trying to teach, you have found a reward. If there’s no change in their behavior, you aren’t using something your dog finds rewarding or they are getting a better reward from doing something else.

Food is a commonly used and recommended reward when teaching a new behavior because it is very easy to use and can be given directly and quickly when a dog does the desired behavior. Toys, attention, access to go outside, and other rewarding things can also be used to build a new behavior but can be a little harder to use since they can’t be controlled as carefully. You can learn more about using food in dog training here.

Getting the Behavior

In order to have a chance to reward the behavior, you have to be able to get your dog to do the behavior in the first place. There are a few options: luring, capturing, shaping, and molding.

Luring

Use a treat or other reward to encourage your dog to move into the right position. The most common way to lure is to put a piece of food right near your dog’s nose and move the food in the direction you want them to go. Where the nose goes, the rest of the dog follows.

Ex: You put a treat right by your dog’s nose and slowly lift your hand up and toward their back end; your dog’s nose will go up and their bottom will go down. Give the treat to reward that body position and you are halfway to training your dog to sit on cue.

Dog Giving Paw with Treat Lure
Photo Credit: PeziBear/Pixabay.com

How to Avoid Lures Becoming Permanent 

Lures are great for getting a new behavior the first few times, but need to be dropped quickly so your dog doesn’t learn to wait until they see the treat. 

Try pretending to hold a treat and moving your hand in the same way as when you were luring. If your dog does what you want, reward with a treat from your other hand. Slowly you can make it more obvious that you aren’t holding a treat but still reward your dog for doing the right thing. With practice, your dog won’t need to see the treat first to know what they need to do. 

Capturing

Reward a behavior that your dog does completely on their own, unprompted by you. Simply wait for the behavior to occur naturally and then reward it. 

Ex: Your dog settles on their bed while you are watching TV on the sofa. If you have your treats ready, you can teach your dog that relaxing on their bed is the best place to be (rather than any number of other things they could be doing that would annoy you at that moment).

Shaping

Shaping means rewarding little steps toward a behavior and then building on it until you get the full behavior you want. It can be used along with luring if your dog is struggling to get the full behavior or if the behavior you want is more complicated. 

Ex: You want to teach your dog to lie down. You start by trying to lure your dog from the sitting position by moving a treat from their nose to the floor. But they keep standing up as they reach for the treat! The next time you only move the treat a few inches toward the floor and reward your dog for lowering their head but leaving their butt down. Now a couple more inches. Finally they lay down and you reward the full behavior. 

Molding (or “Pushing on Your Dog’s Butt”)

Molding describes physically manipulating a dog into position. If you’ve had dogs for a while, you may have used this method to teach a dog to sit by pressing down on their rear end.

Generally, I don’t recommend this method for a few reasons:

  • Some dogs really don’t like to be physically handled in this way and may react with fear or aggression.
  • The dog may learn to just wait for you to do something rather than actively participating in doing the behavior. 
  • Being touched is a really big, obvious cue (signal to do something) that is hard to change later. Unlike the food lure described above which can easily become a small hand signal, moving your dog’s body around doesn’t translate into the type of cue we generally want to use. You end up with a dog that only sits if you tap their rear because they see that as the cue.

Keep Going!

Now that you’re starting to get the new behavior you want, here are a few tips to build a strong and useful long-term behavior.

  • Reward Immediately: To help your dog make the connection, the reward must come very soon after the behavior (within a couple seconds). If you take too long to reward, your dog may connect the reward to the wrong behavior. To bridge the gap, you can use a word (like “yes”) or a clicker to mark the exact moment your dog did the right thing and then follow it up with a treat as soon as you can.
  • Build on Success: Start with what your dog can do now and make it harder only as quickly as your dog can still get it right. “Harder” means from farther away, for longer times, in more distracting places, etc.
  • Reward A Lot: If there’s no reward, there’s no learning.
  • Short and Sweet: Keep sessions to only a few minutes but frequent. 
  • Mix It Up: Practice in different places, at different times, and in different sequences.

As your dog gets more comfortable with their new behavior, start asking for more than one behavior between rewards. Instead of one treat for sitting and one for down, maybe it’s one treat for a sit and a down. As your dog learns that not every behavior earns a treat but some do, they will stay motivated to listen to you even when you can’t reward every single good behavior. This isn’t an excuse to stop paying them for good behavior though; if the rewards stop coming completely, the behavior will stop, too. 

Food doesn’t have to be the only reward. You can incorporate their new skills into daily life and use play, access to the outdoors, mealtime, attention, and anything else your dog loves as a reward. Use what motivates your dog naturally to motivate their newly learned good behavior.

Teaching your dog a new behavior is just like learning a new language or how to play an instrument. It takes plenty of consistent practice. Find your dog’s favorite reward, pick a new skill, and go have fun!

If you need help training your dog to do a new behavior, schedule a private behavior consultation.