Pretty Please, Pay Attention To Me? Look, I Have Treats!

"Please, leave the begging to me, 'k?"
“Please, leave the begging to me, ‘k?”

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I am just going to come right out and say that bribery can be the kiss of death in dog training.

If your dog needs to know in advance that you’ve got treats in your hands* in order to attend to you or to learn a new task, things have gone awry. You may soon find yourself saying, “But he’ll only do it if I have a treat in my hand!” or even one day, “She tears around the neighborhood and doesn’t even care that I am shaking the treat container!”

* Not to mention the giant Home Depot hardware apron that says loud and clear to your dog, “The moment I’m not wearing this in real life, that’s your signal there’s no point in paying attention to me.”

It’s not just about treats. If you have to work yourself into the right cheerful state to get your dog to look your way, you pepper your training sessions with a lot of encouraging sounds to keep your dog engaged with you, or if you routinely wait until your dog is “tuning you out” before you run or clap, chances are you are not rewarding your dog for attending to you. It is much likelier that you are coaxing, bribing, luring, or begging your dog to pay attention. It works to an extent. But not reliably, not long-term, and not when you need it most (like under distraction or for safety reasons). Experience tells me you may then get frustrated with the dog and say things like, “He knows this!” “He is being so stubborn!” “He is just not food motivated!” or “He does it fine at home!” Your frustration may even lead to using punishment.

There are other variables involved in why training is not always as effective as it could be, but today I want to focus on bribes vs. rewards. Rewards are very, very powerful ways to build behavior. However, a treat in your hand is not a reward. A treat dangled in front of your dog is not a reward. A treat (or toy, or activity) that is delivered as a surprise after your dog has done an action you prefer, that is so satisfying to him that he repeats the action in the future, is a reward. I know, it’s mind-blowing, right? But the cause-and-effect sequence of events is enough to make or break your efforts.

So it is worthwhile to take inventory and make sure that you are using your dog’s favorite things as rewards and not as bribes. Signs that you may be inadvertently bribing:

You are at home and feel like training, so you head to the pantry for the dog treats. Your dog hears the goodies and appears out of nowhere.

Better: Call your dog from wherever he is in the house. “Good boy! Surprise, you get to train with me!” Then hustle to the pantry together, reward the action of coming to you, then begin your training session.

Lesson Your Dog Learns: “Coming when called is one of my favorite things because I will be surprised with goodies! And a chance to spend time with my person, solve puzzles with my brain, and get even more goodies!”

You are in training class and it’s time to practice, so you get your dog out of his crate. As he looks around and sniffs the air, you dig around until you find some good treats or a toy so you can get his attention.

Better: Be ready to deliver your dog’s reward before you release him from the crate or rouse him from his mat. Otherwise you invite your dog to become engrossed in the fascinating things around him while you fumble around, and then attempt to coax his brain back to you with goodies, thereby potentially rewarding “being distracted.” (Remember: cause-and-effect.) Instead, ask your dog to come out of the crate by cuing a nose touch your hand or to look at you by saying his name, and reward those.

Lesson Your Dog Learns: “Ooh, paying attention to my person is fun, because it predicts a chance to do an action I already like, and then more good stuff happens as we play and learn!”

You want to teach your dog a new trick or action to do with his body, like “down” or “come.” After a few repetitions of luring him into position with a treat, your dog starts anticipating what to do with his body. Instead of eliminating the bribe from the picture, though, you continue to show the treat to start the next repetition.

Better: Don’t bribe the dog with food or toys to get him to do things. Instead, catch him doing a down (or heading toward you in the case of “come”) and surprise him with his favorite thing(s). Then start naming the action so you’ll be able to ask him to do it on your cue. It’s generally okay to “lure” 2-3 times if you swear on a stack of How Dogs Learn that you will switch from bribes to rewards thereafter. (If you are stuck, let me know and I will help. We’ve all been there!)

Lesson Your Dog Learns: “Hmmm, if I use trial and error to puzzle out what action I should do with my body, and I guess correctly, my person will surprise me with something really cool! Geez, training is engaging! And it is totally worth it to voluntarily offer behaviors to my person. I’m hooked!”

This morning’s paper happens to have an article on why bribing kids does not work to create lasting, reliable behavior. It advises to train behaviors incrementally, with surprise rewards after the dog (er, child) makes a choice, and to build games and social rewards like praise into the process. Sounds like doggone good advice!

You, Your Dog, and National Train Your Dog Month

Rescued, loved and very well-trained wonderdogs Murphy and Mico. (Photo by Chris Sims.)
Rescued, loved and very well-trained wonderdogs Murphy and Mico. (Photo by Chris Sims.)

January is National Train Your Dog Month. It is going to be positively chock full of fun and practical ways you can use training to enhance the lives of you and your dog. Here is what’s in store at Very Fetching:

New Blog Posts

How to Show Dominance Over Your Puppy (While Rocking a Pair of Leg Warmers)

Talk to the Paw: Should You Really Ignore Behavior You Don’t Like?

Training with Treats: Are You Using Bribes or Rewards?

How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something (And Why You Should Care)

New Book

Puppy Savvy is available now at (at a sneak preview, discounted price) and will be in wide release soon. Be one of the first to check it out, and let me know what you think! (Tip: order using Media Mail, quick and low cost.) What’s that, you’d like to view the trailer? Click here.

New! Video Dog Training Lessons

Starting with puppy training lessons that accompany the instructions in Puppy Savvy, Very Fetching will bring you step-by-step demonstrations of how to teach your dog fun and practical skills.

Webinars and Training Tips from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers

Webinars including topics like…

I’m Not Co-Dependent, I Just Can’t Live Without You
House and Crate Training
How to Choose a Great Dog Daycare or Boarding Facility

Training Tips and Canine Life and Social Skills

Learn something new, start a new training project with your dog, find a solution, ask a question or try a new game. There will plenty for you to choose from in celebration of National Train Your Dog Month! Friend me on Facebook for more updates, events and ideas.

One Minute Dog Training Solutions…For Free

I have for you some seriously budget-friendly dog training advice in honor of National Train Your Dog Month. This is pretty cutting edge stuff. Without further ado:

Freebie Number One

Enjoy free webinars and Facebook chats on a terrific variety of training topics presented by the Associaiton of Pet Dog Trainers. Want to help your dog to stop pulling on leash? Not sure if you should get a dog from a shelter? Want your dog and baby to get along? Struggling with separation anxiety? Think you might like to become a dog trainer? Check out the schedule and grab all the state-of-the-art training advice you like!

Freebie Number Two

“But,” you say, “I want customized advice for my dog!” No problemo. Email me [barbara[at]] a one-minute long video of where you are stuck in your training, and I will write back with advice on how to get unstuck and meet your goal.

Your video must be one minute (or less) in length. (Limit three per person.)

Your training dilemma must be for everyday, basic manners issues, like trouble teaching your dog a position (like sit or down or sit pretty) or getting him to do something (come when called, settle on a mat, bring the ball back without getting so distracted). What would you like a little help with?

I will provide you some tried and true instructions that should get you unstuck, perhaps something new I invent that I feel sure would work, and maybe even some tips to advance things as you progress. Depends how zesty I’m feeling.

Feel free to send your video up to Valentine’s Day. I can’t wait to see it!

Here’s some video footage of tricks I did with one of my dogs just to get you inspired to get your training challenge on tape:

Photo Contest: And the Winner Is…

Announcing, the winner of the Photo Contest in celebration of National Train Your Dog Month! Kay Nellis has the winning entry and a free hour of dog training with her Airedale terrier, Capella Rose! Congratulations!!

The entrants were asked to describe how the photo depicts an action taught with reward-based methods and how it benefits both dog an person.

This photo depicts Capella in the position she arrives at when Kay calls her. Notice how close and straight she is positioned. To teach her to come so close and straight, Kay dropped treats straight down for Capella to catch (if she came in crooked or too far out, no treat). Kay also mixes this in with playing fetch with Capella’s favorite ball, to make a game of it and keep it fun for both of them.

The sitting so close and straight after being called benefits Kay because, as you can see in the photo, she gets great focus and attention from Capella using this method. Kay also competes in precision sports with Capella where this high level of performance is required. Even a half inch off from center would be penalized. It doesn’t look like Kay will have to worry about that! (And if memory serves, Capella is just shy of being 18 months old.)

It benefits Capella because it’s good exercise for her brain and body, she gets to play with and bond with her person, and she can be kept safer since Kay can easily reach her collar should she need to put her back on leash during off-leash play.

Again, hearty congratulations! I am looking forward to working with Kay and Capella in their free hour of dog training.

For information on scheduling appointments, please visit

National Train Your Dog Month–Is Your Dog a Top Notch Dog?

Here is your chance to show the answer is “yes!” This photo contest takes only about 30 seconds to enter, there will be three winners, and it allows you to show off how cute and smart your dog is. Someone has to win, why not you and your dog? Here’s how to enter:

Step One: Cue your dog to do something she already knows how to do.

Step Two: Snap a photo of it.

Step Three: Email it to me ( or post it to the Top Notch Dog Facebook page along with a sentence about how you used reward based methods to train what the photo depicts, and how it benefits both you and the dog. You’re done!

First place: $100 in dog training at Top Notch Dog

Second place: $50 in dog training at Top Notch Dog

Third place: a one-year subscription to The Bark magazine.

You have until January 20th. Any age, breed type, or training level welcome. Entries are already rolling in. If you’ve never taught your dog to do anything on cue, there’s no time like the present; see great training tips from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in celebration of National Train Your Dog Month.

Here’s an idea by way of example: Submit a photo of your dog sitting, saying that you used treats to lure the dog into position, praising and feeding when the dog sat. The sit benefits you because the dog sits rather than jumping up, and benefits the dog because his calmer position means more quality time with his people.

Fine print: Winner will be notifed by January 30th and may put the prize towards basic manners or tricks training, no serious behavior problems, which will be at the discretion of Top Notch Dog. Prize must be used by June 15th, 2011. You can be a dog professional, but not a professional photographer. Limit three entries per family.

But that’s not all! Here are other ways to celebrate National Train Your Dog Month with Top Notch Dog!

15% off all dog and puppy training in the month of January.

Free access to the discussion of all things kids, babies and dogs hosted by Barbara at the virtual bookclub Dog Read starting January 16th. We’ll be discussing Happy Kids, Happy Dogs, which is recommended by childbirth educators and trauma prevention specialists at Duke Health and UNC Hospitals. Now available online, at The Regulator Bookshop and as an iBook.

Happy National Train Your Dog Month!

Tricks Contest Winner

The tricks contest inspired quite a few people to work on new tricks and even some to write in with questions. One person taught her dog to play the piano and I heard someone else developed a trick involving a rubber chicken. So that was the whole idea, to train your dog something new, to feel inspired and challenged and to do something fun for National Train Your Dog Month.

Here are the winning video submissions. Both are from the same owner, two different dogs (each is about a minute long). Enjoy watching the first session and the finished product for each trick, and consider trying these out with your dog. By the way, both tricks have practical applications; the first is called “Glue” and it can be used to give a fearful, reactive, or easily distracted dog something to focus on, and the second is great for building core muscle strength in dogs with “normal” length backs.

The first video is of a 12 year old Golden retriever named Dreamer learning and then performing a trick called “Glue.” (So you see, “young-at-heart” dogs can learn new tricks!).

The second video is of a 6 and 1/2 year old Golden retriever named Trotter learning and then performing a  trick called “Say Your Prayers.”

Congratulations to Dreamer’s and Trotter’s owner, Chris O’Connor, who has won an hour of dog training at Top Notch Dog. In her submission she said she’d like to use the session towards polishing heeling and teaching more tricks; that is the thing about teaching tricks, once you’ve tried it, it is so much fun for both you and the dog, it is hard to stop at just one. Happy training!

Ideas for Tricks to Teach (video)

Just for fun, I thought I’d post a short video of a tricks training session for some ideas for tricks to teach. In celebration of National Train Your Dog Month I’ll help you troubleshoot any trick you’re teaching for the Tricks Contest through February 15th. Just post your question here, at the Facebook page, or email me.

Coming up: how to know when to lure, when to shape, and when to capture to train a trick.

The Big Trick Contest

Top Notch Dog Presents…

The National Train Your Dog Month Trick Training Contest!

This contest is going to have one winner, but it will be a group effort to help that person (and dog!) win.

At any time while working on your trick, you may post to the blog and ask for help. I’ll be your virtual coach and help you as you go. You are welcome to upload video to YouTube at that point to show where you are stuck, but it’s not required. There will be a tricks workshop at Top Notch Dog on Wednesday, January 20 at 1:00 if you’d like in-person help or if you wish to enter but don’t have video access (see below).

You will win: one hour of free dog training for you and your dog at Top Notch Dog ($100 value). Two other finalists will receive a book on dog tricks training and a special surprise for their dog. The winner will be chosen when you and everyone else votes on the finalists. It will be *just* like American Idol.

Here’s how it works:
Each contestant will choose a trick to teach their dog. It must be a trick your dog has never before learned. You have one month to teach the trick. It may be very simple or very complex, as tricks will not be judged on their level of difficulty. Over the course of the month, I will post blog entries that provide the following:

  • Ideas for tricks to teach
  • Different methods of teaching tricks (luring, capturing, shaping)
  • Practical uses for tricks in everyday life
  • Troubleshooting your challenges as you work on your trick
  • Suggestions for books, dvd’s and links to help you choose and teach the trick

Your finished trick must be on cue. Using ‘sit’ as an example, your cue can be a verbal cue (i.e. “sit”) or a hand or body signal (your hand sweeping upward), but your video must show the trick being cued. You must use reward-based methods (so, you would be ineligible if you forced the dog’s butt down to the ground for the ‘sit’). Luring, capturing or shaping are all acceptable methods (more on these later).

To enter: you must video tape the first training session and the finished product and upload your approximately one-minute clip to YouTube. Once the clip is uploaded, send an email to barbara @ (minus the spaces) with Tricks Contest in the subject line. Your email must contain the following:

  • Your name and your dog’s name and age
  • The town in which you live
  • The YouTube link showing the first training session and final product
  • The goal you would have for your free, one-hour training session if you won

Fine print: the winner’s free training session will be at Top Notch Dog within 3 months of the announcement of the winner. It may be used only for basic manners or more tricks training (no serious behavior problems like aggression). You will be required to sign a standard waiver and info sheet on your dog.

Happy training!

January is National Train Your Dog Month (and how this could affect your dog)

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers has designated January to be National Train Your Dog Month. It is a brand new year…help your dog dog kick that troublesome habit he has! Special events at Top Notch Dog during the month of January include:

Receive 10% off your first training appointment

Win a free training appointment by winning the Trick Training Contest ($100 value, details to follow)

Participate in any of three upcoming workshops at a special rate of $25 (or attend all three for $60):

* Tricks to Calm Your Dog (Wed Jan 20 1:00)

* Say Goodbye to Pulling on Leash (Sat. Jan 23 10:00)

* Teach Your Dog to Come When Called (Mon Jan 25 4:00)

Email to register or find out more. Or call (919) 493-4560. For oodles of dog training tips, see the National Train Your Dog Month website. Enjoy your dog more, starting today. Happy training!