Imagine how you would feel if you were trying to figure out how to carry out a new task and no-one was telling you whether you were getting it right or wrong. You may feel anxious, confused, frustrated – or all three. We can ask questions and (hopefully) receive answers that point us in the right direction if we feel unsure, but our dogs are often left with no choice but to use trial and error while they try to work it out for themselves. Unless we give clear guidance and feedback our dogs won’t know what it is that we’re asking of them, and if there’s no response from us they will soon give up on trying.

Instant feedback is a vital tool that teaches our dogs appropriate and desired behaviours. It strengthens the connection within the relationship, speeds up the training process and teaches our dogs that they can trust us to communicate effectively with them.

The first step in giving effective feedback is to pay attention to your dog’s body language. Does your dog look confused? Find another way to be clear in your request. Is your dog anxious, or distracted by the presence of other dogs or people, or are you in a busy, over-stimulating environment? Take him or her somewhere quieter and less stressful so that it’s easier to maintain focus, and use a calm tone of voice and clear hand and body signals. Dogs “read” our non-verbal language and tones of voice very well, and matching the words we use as cues for behaviours comes after they’ve worked out what our bodies are telling them.

The second step is to keep lessons short – no more than a few minutes at a time. This is just as relevant whether you’re teaching your dog to keep all four paws on the floor when visitors arrive, or to sit when asked, or to willingly relinquish something in order to learn to “trade”, or to learn social skills around other dogs. Like us, dogs get bored and lose interest when they’re repeatedly asked to do the same thing over and over again.

Positive feedback

Mark the behaviour immediately with a happy “Yes!” or “Good!” and a treat and stroke, or a short tug-toy game or ball-throwing session – whichever floats your dog’s boat the most. You can use a clicker to mark the behaviour, too, by clicking the moment he does as asked and following this through immediately with a treat. Dogs repeat behaviours that they find rewarding, and your full attention combined with enthusiasm, pride (well, of course you’re proud!) and a tasty morsel or brief game will fix that behaviour in place.

Carry on marking the behaviour every single time until it becomes automatic. After that you can gradually ease off the rewards, but it’s useful (and great for your dog) to still give occasional rewards. However much you may love your job, would you do it without pay for years on end?

What if you want to eliminate an unwanted behaviour?

Simply remove your attention. Attention is a huge motivator for a dog. If your dog is barking and you have to raise your voice to ask her to stop, as far as she’s concerned you’re joining in and therefore encouraging her to continue! By ignoring the barking until she pauses to draw breath, and then marking that moment of blissful silence with praise, a treat or a game, she’ll learn that silence really is golden. She’s getting positive feedback for being quiet. You can then add a hand signal as she pauses – holding up your hand, palm out in the traffic cop “Stop” signal soon becomes her cue for silence, richly rewarded immediately afterwards, of course! Using a hand signal means that you don’t have to say a word, and that avoids causing any confusion.

Encourage an alternative behaviour. Your dog is jumping up? Teach him to sit on cue, as sitting is incompatible with jumping.

ABC

The ABC of behaviour is Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. The antecedent is the stimulus that causes a dog to perform a behaviour. The behaviour follows as a direct result of this, and the consequence is what happens immediately after the behaviour is performed. When you give instant feedback your dog quickly learns to associate the behaviour with your response, and therefore learns whether it’s going to be rewarding to repeat it.

It’s all in the eyes

Smile a lot – real eye-crinkling smiles – when you give feedback. Dogs are experts at reading our faces and, like humans, use what is called the left-gaze bias to decipher our emotional states by looking at our faces. If you’re not feeling the love and only your lips are smiling, your dog will know.

Be interesting

Predictability in your responses is important while your dog is learning something new, but if you also make yourself interesting to be around, he’ll want to stay focussed on you. Keep the feedback coming, and vary the rewards occasionally so that your dog is never sure whether he’ll get cheese, chicken or a game. This makes training much more fun!

Lisa Tenzin-Dolma (photo: Skye, Lisa’s dog)