• Zhang An Zhi PUPS Certified Dog Trainer

How to get your dog to love (almost) anything


How to get your dog to love (almost) anything

The vast majority of concerns from dog owners can be summarized into 2 questions: "Why does my dog like / dislike XX", and "How to make my dog like / stop XX".

We have heard so many of them: why does my dog like digging the earth? How can I make my dog enjoy showering? Why is my dog scared of middle-aged men? Why does my dog always lie down and refuses to move every time we walk by this hut on our walk? My dog jumps on me all the time, how can I make him sit instead of jump? Why does my dog bark at my mother every time? The list goes on and on.

Generally, there are two causes: instinct, and conditioning. Instincts are very straightforward - some breeds naturally love chasing moving targets, some are more territory-conscious, showering is naturally uncomfortable by itself, and all dogs love food.

However, there is a second, and often stronger drive: conditioning. This simply means the process of accumulating experience on whether something brings good things, or bad things. For example, if you change cloth, open the drawer by the door, and take out the leash before every walk. It won't take more than a few days for your dog to run to the door and jump around in joy when you take out the leash, that is, if it does like walking. This is because the event "owner takes out leash" preceded "taken out for a walk" almost every time, and if a walk is a good thing, "owner takes out leash" also becomes a good thing.

Similarly, if a bad event B often follows event A, event A becomes a bad thing for the dog as well. Take the example of refusing to move on during walks. If you notice that this generally happens on the way back, then likely this is conditioning working. After many walks along the same route (or a few routes), dogs know that they are on the way back. Generally, dogs enjoy walking and going outside. Heading home is, therefore, a bad thing, and dogs may try to prevent that from happening, just like a child that cries on the way to kindergarten.

It is important to note though, that the "good things" and "bad things" are often different from what we think. "Good things" are what dogs enjoy. Digging in the front yard is senseless and dirty from the eyes of a human, but for many dogs, this triggers their instinct of digging and burying. It is, therefore, an attractive activity for dogs, unless owner changes dog's perceptions and turn it into a bad thing through training.

Similarly, if your dog barks and shows teeth each time your old mother walks by it, and scares your mother, that is definitely a bad thing, right? But in the instinct of dogs, this is actually a fun game. Dogs love receiving reactions for doing something, especially big reactions. My mother is so scared of dogs that someone walking a dog comes toward us, she would hide behind me; when I hold a dog and raise it toward her, she screams and runs away, even when the dog is still half a meter away. Each time she does that, there is a good chance the dog gets excited, often even bark toward her if it is not well-trained. On the other hand, when I react to dogs calmly, nothing happens. I continue walking ahead without stopping. The only difference might be a few glimpse.

Let's suppose your dog loves standing up and jumping towards you. How did this habit get conditioned? This action itself is second nature, a common game played by dogs. Perhaps one day your dog happened to want to play the same game with you. When he jumped on you, even if you didn't like it, as your dog's face comes so close, you couldn't help petting, maybe even hugging it. That is a positive reinforcement. One experience of jumping onto owner and getting petted makes your dog more likely to do the same again. And again. If you do pet, hug, or play with your dog more often than not, the formula "if I jump onto my owner, I can get touched" becomes a "knowledge for it.

When I go to a dog cafe (cafes where dogs are kept for customers to pet and play with; you can buy the treat from the cafe to feed the dogs), as long as there are few customers and I am holding some treat, almost every dog stand up and try to jump on me. Doing so helps to attract the attention of the customer holding treat so that the reward is given to it, rather than other dogs trying to squeeze in. Naturally, I also get surrounded, often with two or three dogs jumping onto my leg, and much more trying to. But I do not like this. So I always hold the treat slightly away from me, beyond the dogs on my lap. This makes the dogs leave my leg and gather below the treat. Then I place the treat just above the head of one of the dogs, guiding it to sit down. I immediately praised ("Yes!") and offered the treat. Shortly, the other dogs try to jump on me again, and I repeat the same with another dog. After a few rounds, dogs no longer gather around my legs. They gather about half a meter in front of me, as that is the place treat is most likely to be given, based on their experience. They automatically sit down as soon as I hold the treat in hand, because they know I will only reward a dog that sits. All of them want to be the chosen one, so they go the most-rewarded location (in front but slightly away from me) and wait in the most-rewarded position (sitting). This is how powerful conditioning is.

We can use this technique in real life. If you don't want your dog to jump on you, always make it sit before giving a treat. If you want your dog to love taking showers, give it a good hug, massage, and play some games after each shower. Tell your family to also show excitement and happiness when they see the clean dog (and why not- who doesn't love a nice smelling dog with clean hair?).

If you want your dog to sit on a mat at home, make good things happen when he does so. Give him a treat, play some game, massage his neck. This way, it will surely come to associate the mat with good feelings and start to love it.

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