Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thinking about relationship

In comments on yesterday's post, Lynn Ungar wrote: “I think one of the challenges is that food is so darn reinforcing for the TRAINER. With a smart, food-motivated dog and a clicker you can train an incredible variety of things really quickly, and it’s just so much FUN. (Says the woman whose Aussie had a basic understanding of the utility exercises at 6 months.) The rate of reward for the trainer is enormous, and the dog is having a great time and it’s all beautiful. Until the dog figures out there is no food in the ring -- which doesn’t take long with a smart, food-motivated dog. Building a training relationship that makes the work intrinsically fun requires a great deal more maturity from both the dog and trainer, and the results are much more incremental. Which means that the trainer also needs to learn to find the work together rewarding in and of itself, without relying so much on the reinforcers of “progress” and “success.”

Thank you, Lynn, for your insightful comment. It speaks volumes, especially the last two sentences, which I highlighted.

Clickers ARE fun. A person with a reasonably good sense of timing and clear criteria can take a clicker and a handful of treats and have a clicker-savvy dog dancing on the proverbial head of a pin in a very short amount of time. This is incredibly rewarding for the trainer. Wow! Look what I taught my brilliant dog!

Does this mean the person has established a strong enough relationship with the dog through the training that the dog would happily and reliably perform the same behaviors in a brand new environment without any treats?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

My initial response is no, probably not (although I'm willing to allow for exceptions). Training methods CAN enhance the relationship you have with your dog, depending on how they are used, but it’s not a guarantee that just because your dog learns to do the work that he has learned to love working with you in the absence of other rewards.

Phoenix is Exhibit A in that regard. He loves some obedience work. He loves more obedience work now than he did six months ago. In another six months, I hope he loves it even more. But in spite of achieving a UD in 4 trials with scores in the 190s last spring, he did not automatically love being in the Utility ring with me.

I’d done a great job of teaching the exercises and a lousy job of building the relationship. I totally overlooked it because my previous dogs were so different in their approach to obedience. With them, there was no challenge, no struggle, no battle of wills. I was not prepared for what Phoenix threw at me - Mr. Highly Intelligent Physically Tough Super Sensitive I Don’t Wanna I’m Not Gonna You Can’t Make Me Oh Look A Cat!

Relationship is more than the 20 minutes a day we spend trying to teach our dogs to do un-natural behaviors like heel with their heads up or sit squarely in front of us. You can’t build a relationship using only your training time. That’s an important part of it but that’s not the whole thing.

I think relationship is a lot about discovering who your dog “is” and then sharing that with him beyond the brief window of “training.” There are about a million different ways Phoenix and I interact on a daily basis that have nothing to do with obedience training. Now that I’ve started paying more attention to how I engage with him beyond the context of training, I’m trying to take advantage of these little interactions and give them a genuine response, not just a casual pat on the head as I walk by. They’re not cued in any formal way - they’re just how we live together. The joy of living with this fascinating dog. The joy of taking time to engage my dog on his level, when he invites me. This is giving me better insight into what Phoenix thinks is fun. Or funny. (Belgians have the oddest sense of humor.)

We play spontaneously in the house and in the yard. I have him do silly tricks for nothing more than effusive applause and laughter (he likes it). I find ways he can “help” me around the house - fetching laundry or delivering mail to the Farmer. None of these involve cookies. We do them because they’re fun. I’m starting to approach obedience in much the same context - less formal, more relaxed, silly, happy, fun. Which I should have done in the first place but live and learn.

Denise Fenzi said it best: “Simply put, relationship is not food and toys; relationship is what’s left when the food and toys are gone.” (


  1. Wag, wag. I am SO reinforced by being quoted.

  2. Love that last quote. Must keep it in mind!