I am always a bit amused when I arrive at a new client’s home to help them with their new puppy. More often than not during our first lesson I hear the owners saying “come,” “sit” or “no” over and over again, frustrated because the puppy is not doing what it is asked. It reminds me of when I was in China on a choral tour with 80 high school students. One day we were in a restaurant and one of the kids wanted another bottle of Coke. As the waiter walked by the student said loudly and slowly – “Can I have another Coke?” The waiter continued by him, not realizing that the kid was talking to him. When he passed by again, the kid again said in a louder voice, even more slowly, “Can I have another Coke?” The waiter continued on his way. The third time it happened the student was getting angry and said to his friends, “What is he, stupid?” They all laughed. At that point I caught the waiter’s eye, smiled, picked up the empty bottle of coke and pointed to it. He quickly left the room and came back with a new bottle of Coke. The students said, “How did you do that?” I said, “I spoke to him in a language we both understand.”
So what language do we use with our dogs? It is called operant conditioning. Most people don’t care about the science of dog training, they just want to be successful at it. Rather than spending time on the science of why, this article will focus on the how, so that you can “just do it,” as they say. If you are one of the few who loves the science behind it, you can learn more about it, just Google “Operant Conditioning.”
In a nutshell, all animals repeat behaviors with positive outcomes and avoid behaviors with negative outcomes. We take advantage of a pup’s natural tendency to repeat the behaviors we like by rewarding those behaviors. But first we need a way to tell her exactly what she is being rewarded for. Ideally we would do that by delivering the reward the instant the pup does the behavior. In most cases, that’s simply not possible. So we use something called a marker that can be heard by the pup the instant she does something we like and then we quickly deliver her treat.