Do you know the pleasure of solving a riddle? Remember the joy of experiencing an “Aha!” moment? With a bit of help, your dog can have such moments too. I mentioned the discovery approach to dog training in my previous post about relaxation for dogs. I like it and use it a lot, because it has several advantages.
Although there is a bit of frustration and a bit of hard work to the dog training process as to any learning process, you absolutely must have fun doing this. Your dog should have fun too. Besides the practical goals of teaching your dog to behave in certain ways and to adjust to human environment, the act of training your dog is an important quality time for you both. When working on that “sit-stay” cue, you give your full attention to the dog. Dogs and humans are social animals, and communication is precious for both species. Positive communication between us and our dogs is just priceless.
Discovery approach brings the fun part into the dog training process. It replaces boring repetitions with guesswork, adventure and joy of discovery, turning your training sessions into a game. Both you and your dog will be much more motivated to stick to consistent training process, if it brings you pleasure.
Anyone, who played a game at least once in their life, knows that games are addictive. It works in a similar way for dogs. Making the correct guess and seeing the owner pleased is like winning a game for us. It causes a release of dopamine in the brain, which causes the dog to feel good and to seek more. This is why games and puzzles are so addictive. This is why reward-driven learning is so effective. The dog is naturally incline to repeat those behaviors, that cause pleasure.
I remember struggling with math problems in schools. No matter how many times I saw the explanation or was guided through the solution, it just didn’t stick in my head. However, as soon as I figured it out myself, the solution stayed with me forever. In order to learn something, the brain needs to map the behaviour or the idea. Learning process is many times more effective, when the learner (in our case – the dog) owns the process by actively seeking solutions, finding it, and experiencing the “Aha!” moment. That is why guiding your dog to the discovery of the right answers and rewarding will give you quicker and more consistent results than imposing behaviours on the dog.
So how does it actually look like? The easiest way is to use clicker, however, it is not necessary. The most important thing is to have lots of enthusiasm and to be ready to cheer and praise your dog as if he just won the Nobel Prize. Have in mind a clear picture of what is it you want your dog to dog. Let’s say, you are teaching him to sit, while you are looking for keys to your front door. When you get to the door, stop and look at the dog. After a few moment. he should be puzzled, You broke the routine, and he doesn’t understand, why isn’t he getting nearer to his breakfast. His brain should start working trying to figure out what’s going on. He might scratch, cry, lick his lips and give you a questioning look.
At this point, you could say “sit” and that would be it. Most likely, however, you will have to prompt your dog to sit every time. Instead, you could wait until he sits either because he just decided to sit or because he is trying to guess what is it you’re waiting for. Bingo! The moment his bottom hits the ground, praise him and make sure to show how pleased and exited you are. Start opening the door. If the dog gets up, close the door and wait again. Usually, the dog figure out what to do after 4-5 times. If you will be consistent, your dog will automatically sit down and wait, while you get the keys and open the door. Consistency is absolutely crucial for the discovery approach to work. Since you are not giving any explicit cues, your consistency in rewarding is the only way for your dog to know, which behaviours you like.