Percy is hypervigilant as we walk though the park. His eyes move from the trees to our left to the field to our right, scanning for dogs, people, cats—anything that might be scary or interesting. We walk by a bench, and I tell him, “Up!” With an almost audible sigh of relief, he leaps onto the seat, his body relaxing as he views the park from a higher vantage point.
The “up” cue is a big confidence builder for Percy. It’s also a cue that he chose himself. He is a dog that becomes anxious when faced with the possibility of strange dogs walking through the same park as he is, and being able to get on a higher level seems to make him feel braver and safer. On our walk one day, I noticed that every time we walked by a raised surface, he seemed to want to climb it. So I encouraged him by a big rock, allowing him to get up on his own. After seeing the immediate change in his body language, I decided to put this natural behavior on cue.
Choice is a powerful thing. In this case, I let Percy choose the next cue that he was going to learn, but I also let him show me what he found reinforcing. As a result, I ended up with a cue that was easy to teach, that he finds naturally rewarding (meaning I don’t need to use many other rewards to maintain it), and that he finds confidence-building.
Think about what your dog chooses to do if you allow them a little freedom on a walk. Does he or she run to sniff every tree they can reach? Play in the leaves? Pick up sticks off the ground? Spend a lot of time sniffing in the grass?
These are natural behaviors for many dogs, but each individual will find certain things more reinforcing than others. You can use these inclinations to pick a new cue to work on with your dog, or to give them more variety in their rewards. For example, if you dog enjoys picking up sticks and carrying them, they might enjoy learning to retrieve. If they love to sniff, you can use that as a strong reinforcer on walks—if do a nice heel or offer eye contact in the face of distractions, give them permission to go sniff before moving on.
Because our dogs don’t speak our language, it’s easy to think that we can’t know what they want. We may never know everything that drives them. But we can take the time to make some simple observations that can build our relationship, their confidence, and make training easier and more rewarding for both of us.
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.