Dogs trainers are veterans when it comes to hearing- “I tried that, it didn’t work.” This is often spoken by a client or potential client who after finally contacting a rewards based trainer explains why they don’t use food rewards. Their immediate assumption is that because they handed a few treats to their dog, and didn’t see an immediate change in the dog’s behavior, using food, or any kind of reward to train, doesn’t work. Clicker trainers also hear it when after picking up a clicker at a pet shop, aiming it at their dog and not getting an appreciable change in their dog’s behavior, an owner declares clicker training to be ineffective. Unfortunately, and disturbingly, there are even trainers who say the same thing.
Are there dogs who are not highly motivated by food? Sure there are, but there are very few so unmotivated that they’ll starve themselves to death. And there may be dogs who are too overwhelmed and scared to either play or eat, but that’s because they are overwhelmed, not because they lack a reward system in their brain. Even if a dog is afraid of the sound a clicker makes, the principles of clicker training can still be applied.
If the underlying principles, in our case, how dogs learn, are sound, then we should be able to take advantage of them. If we can’t, it’s telling us something other than that the principles are wrong. We know that we can make it more likely that a behavior will be repeated, or not, and we know that we can respond in ways to a dog that will either cause an emotional response to become more less intense. Depending on whether we want more or less of a behavior, or the emotion which drives the behavior, we behave i.e., train, accordingly. Good trainers also understand that dogs learn behaviors faster when they are rewarded for doing something right, compared to being punished for doing something wrong.
If you hand someone your keys so they can borrow your car and they return, hand you your keys and say, “Keys don’t work to start cars,” what are the chances you’d nod your head and agree? Not likely I’m guessing. There’s the chance they used the wrong key, or went to the wrong car, or there was no gas in the car or the starter was on the fritz. Or perhaps you have a replacement key that doesn’t fit quite right and requires a ‘special touch’ to get it to work. I rented a car and whenever I left it parked for any length of time it then wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. I wanted a different car, or at least a new battery put in it. It turned out that in this particular car it was possible to remove the key from the ignition when it was in the position that kept the alternator on. Unaware of this I thought I was turning the car off, but was in fact leaving the alternator on and it was draining the battery. I thought I knew how to turn off a car, but in this instance I didn’t.
People try different techniques to change behavior in their dogs. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, how infrequently they question how well they are performing those techniques before claim they don’t work. Don’t throw out the baby, or the treats, with the bathwater.