Rewards Aren’t Up to You

Any client who worked with me during the first half of 2018 knows that my Golden Retriever, Doctor, was refusing to come inside the house. I would beg. I would plead. I might have even shouted in frustration a couple times. This was the time in his life where Doctor earned the nickname “Dog turd.”

One night, in particular, was a breaking point for me. It was late and I was tired. My boyfriend, Robert, had already gone to bed and I was supposed to be right behind him. Instead, I found myself sitting on the back steps, sobbing. The damn dog would NOT come in the house.

For two hours, I tried all the tricks and advice I’ve given to clients. I pretended to be having fun. I ran inside, attempting to entice him in a game of chase. I said the cue “come” in a fun way. I said it in a stern way. I sang Disney songs and danced. I propped the door open and just went inside, expecting him to follow like 99% of dogs are wired to do. I waved every treat in the house in front of his face. I even escalated up to string cheese. Nothing. No results. That little shit was still frolicking around outside, having a grand old time, while I was sobbing.

Eventually, he ran by me and I was able to grab him by the scruff of his neck and pull him inside. Not my proudest moment.

The next morning, I confessed to Robert how horrible I felt about the whole situation. I admitted that it made me doubt everything I knew about dog training! He asked if there were any books I could read to help with the problem. I shouted, “I’ve read them all!” (Which, of course, isn’t true, but the point was I’ve read SLEWS of dog training books. Both practical ones and ones on theory.) Robert kept trying to throw ideas out at me and since I was still very frustrated and very trigger stacked, I shot them all down. (You’ll definitely want to watch my video on Trigger stacking. You can find it here.)

Then, he said something that was so obvious that it was profound. He said, “Well he just likes being outside more than he likes anything else in the world!”

And that was it. That was my ah-ha moment. Because Robert was wrong. There was ONE THING Doctor loved more than anything. More than even being outside. TENNIS BALLS.

I immediately started playing fetch with Doctor in the house. I needed him to know that the very best thing in the whole world didn’t JUST happen outside. His mind was blown.

Then, I started playing fetch in such a way that I was standing inside, but throwing the ball outside. To keep the game going, Doctor had to run back inside the house. As his reward, I would throw that dang ball back outside. The behavior I wanted (coming in the house) was being rewarded with the best thing in the whole world (Outside AND a ball).

The mind game worked. He now knows that coming inside is a good predictor of me getting the ball out and tossing it for him. For a few months, he got a ball every single time he came in the house. (For at least a few minutes until I got annoyed and put it away.) Then, I started tapering it off. Sometimes he would get a treat, but most of the time, he would get that ball.

Now, about 7 months later, I only give him a ball about 10% of the time when he comes inside. About 70% of the time he gets a treat. The rest of the time, I will just scratch his belly and boop his snoot and give him little kisses on the head.

The lesson I learned is that rewards are always, always, always in the eyes of the dog. It doesn’t matter what I think should be rewarding. The only thing that matters is what the dog thinks is rewarding. AND that reward must be better than what they already have! (eg Treats < Outside < Tennis balls.)

If you can master the art of determining just the right reward to use in a given situation, you can avoid sobbing on your back steps like me!