Is Your Dog Cheating?
On a trained behavior, a self-reflection of when and how you’re rewarding your dog is key.
The report of the shotgun and the folding of the rooster appeared to happen simultaneously. The aging springer was almost sitting, taking short steps in anticipation, impatiently waiting for his name to be called for the retrieve. As the bird hit the ground, his wish was granted.
“Pete!” rang out in the cool fall air, and the dog was off. A quick pick up and delivery of the bird to his owner finished the work off nicely. After taking the bird from his animated little hunting partner, Fred turned to me with a big grin on his face, “Quite the dog, don’t you think? He likes to cheat a bit on the retrieve, but I don’t mind.”
I was impressed with the dog. He had an amazing zeal for his job and showed wisdom in dealing with these strong flying birds. I was in full agreement with Fred’s opinion of his dog. However, I was not in agreement with his description. Was Pete really “cheating” on the retrieve? “Cheating” would imply that the dog was purposefully violating a rule.
In field trials, springer spaniels are asked to sit once the flush is completed and wait to be released for the retrieve. This is the standard that Fred knew. It’s also the standard Fred expected me to use to measure Pete’s performance. Pete definitely did not abide by the rule. However, to be a “cheater,” Pete would have to be aware of the rule and purposefully break it. Since he can’t read a rule book, the only way Pete can know what is expected of him is to interpret the communication coming from his handler. By releasing the dog when he did, Fred had sent a clear message: almost sitting, accompanied with some short little steps, is precisely the correct action to bring the desired reward. Pete performs that action the same way each time, and each time he gets paid. From what I witnessed that day, I believe, Fred had unintentionally taught his dog the very action he was now referring to as “cheating.”
These scenarios occur quite often in the gun dog world. With both pointing dogs and flushing dogs there are situations where we would like the dog to “wait” until we give them the release command. We would like the dog to stay on the bed until released, or we would like the dog to stay sitting or standing still until released. In our minds, we are wanting the dog to wait. I find, however, the way the dog sees or interprets the situation can be far different.
Progression & Training Desires
Let’s take a minute to look at the process of a small puppy learning to sit.
A very effective way to teach “sit” to a puppy is to take a piece of food and hold it in front of its nose. As the pup tries to get the food from your fingers, you move the food back toward the top of its head. This will put the dog in a slightly awkward position. In an effort to get more comfortable, the youngster will sit. The instant the puppy’s hind end touches the ground, you release the food into its mouth. With repetition it will realize the key to getting the food is to have its hind end on the ground. Before long the pup will be sitting whenever we raise a piece of food above its head. With some effort, and the addition of a positive marker, the dog will be sitting at a distance when we raise our empty fist in the air. The puppy will consistently sit because it understands its hind end on the ground is the action which earns the desired reward. In simple form we can see the dog is identifying specific behaviors tied to the rewards. The action marked will be the action repeated. If the pup does not sit when we raise our fist but still wants the treat we can simply withhold the reward. Soon the pup’s desire for the withheld reward will cause it to sit. This shows us the dog does understand the required action. It will also continue to sit in anticipation, as if begging us to give the reward.
The above progression shows us that the dog is connecting the reward to the action. It’s important you only reward the pup when it is sitting and be sure to deny the reward if the pup stands to receive the food. The pup will soon understand the reward will only come when it is in the act of sitting. Because it wants the reward, it will remain sitting until it gets the food. In the pup’s mind, it is not thinking about the duration of time. Instead, it is thinking about the action required and is continuing the action until rewarded.
Let’s look again at the situation with Fred and Pete. If Pete really understood sitting was the action which brought the reward of the retrieve, then simply withholding the release would bring a sit. An immediate release when the dog sat would reconfirm that sitting was the correct behavior. The well-timed release would create a more prompt response from the dog in the future. The dog would understand that the release comes as a result of fully sitting on the ground. In this mindset, a delayed release will result in a tighter sit as the dog works to earn its desired reward.
In contrast, trying to fix the problem by requiring the dog to sit and hold that position for longer periods of time can increase the anticipation and frustration. The increased anticipation and frustration creates inching forward and standing up. By releasing the dog when inching forward and standing half way up, we mark these behaviors as being correct.
In one case, the dog understands that the quality of its performance brings the release. In the other case, the dog believes that anticipation and frustration bring the release.
As I work with people and their dogs I frequently find myself saying, “Dogs repeat the actions that they are paid for.” Often the payment is made inadvertently, as in the example of Fred and Pete, when the dog’s actions are not what we would like.
Communication is Key
I often hear people use words to describe their dog’s behavior such as cheating, dishonest, or sneaky. These descriptive words imply that the dog is purposely going against their owner’s wishes. At times it can feel this way. However, this view leaves the responsibility for change on the dog. That’s expecting an awful lot out of an animal. Those kinds of expectations are almost a guarantee for failure.
I find the knowledge that our dogs are opportunistic to be very empowering. They are constantly trying to figure out how to get what they want. Our attention to our communication with them will make all the difference in their performance. As we get better at communicating the exact behaviors that bring their desired rewards, our dogs will dependably perform those behaviors. As I like to say, “Dogs repeat the actions they are paid for.”