By Lisa Moore – firstname.lastname@example.org
An essential part of any dog training program is a solid reward system. The learning process is accelerated when there is an element of fun or enjoyment for both the teacher and the learner. Rewards can come in many forms – treats, physical interaction or petting, toy play, hand play, access to something interesting in the environment, etc.
For most beginners, food is the easiest reward to offer; if it’s high enough in value, the dog will likely want to work to earn those rewards. But food is by no means the only option – it’s not practical to carry it around all of the time and it’s not at all necessary if you can learn to reward your dog in other ways.
In most of our beginning classes, when we ask people to “play” with their dogs, they’re not at all sure what that means or what to do. Some pull their dogs in close for a hug and petting – most dogs indicate through body language that this isn’t an enjoyable event for them. Others pull out a toy and hold it in front of the dog, puzzled at why he won’t tug at it like he does with another dog at home.
The fact is, learning how to interact and play with your dog is an acquired skill. It requires you to experiment with a variety of toys and play overtures, as well as being able to interpret the dog’s body language. The dog will always tell you whether or not he is enjoying himself; you just have to know what to look for.
Body language that indicates the dog is enjoying what you are offering in terms of play is fairly straightforward: The dog engages in the activity, orients his body toward you, returns your eye contact, ears are cocked forward in your direction, tail is often wagging. Other playful displays include exaggerated body movements and going down on the front legs, i.e. a “play bow.” The mouth is usually open.
The dog that avoids eye contact, shifts his weight back, drops or tucks his tail, squints his eyes, yawns, flattens his ears or pulls them back, tries to duck out from under you or turns away from you is clearly not enjoying what you are offering as a “reward.”
So how do you figure out what your dog likes in terms of play? If you have the ability to watch dogs at play, you may notice that there isn’t a whole lot of physical contact. What dogs often do is touch and retreat. We can do a version of this with our own dogs. Get down on the floor and do a “play bow,” an exaggerated placing of your elbows on the floor, keeping your rear end higher. Keep an animated expression – dogs are experts at reading our facial expressions. Next, reach out quickly but gently and touch a body part – the dog’s paw, tail, shoulder or rib area – and retreat. Encourage your dog with your voice and your body language and be patient. Time and experimentation will show you how to relate and play with your dog.
If you want to encourage interaction with you while holding a toy, capitalize on the fact that dogs are attracted to movement. Move the toy and squiggle it along the floor in an enticing manner, encouraging your dog to pursue it. If your dog is hesitant, make sure you give him ample opportunity to catch the toy, sometimes holding on to it for some gentle tugging, other times letting it go so he can enjoy a moment of parading around with his new prize.
Learning how to relate to your dog in this manner will only enhance the relationship you have, and will also enable you to reward your dog even when there are no treats or toys handy. This is one of my favorite things about living with dogs. They can bring out the play in you and studies confirm that dogs respond to your laughter and facial expressions. So go ahead and get a little silly – both you and your dog will benefit from it.
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.