“To bite? Or NOT to bite? Dat is da question…”
…So, how – and how readily – will a dog take a treat from a human hand?
Remember the 1970s television series Kung Fu (if you’re old enough, or you watch vintage TV shows)? Starring David Carradine? When his character Caine is a young Shaolin novice, impatient to complete his spiritual and martial-arts training, his teacher holds out a small stone in his palm and says, “When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”
OK…what does this have to do with dog training? A lot, actually.
For some dogs, it’s a measure of trust and confidence – for others, of patience and politeness. Ideally, a dog should happily come up and take a treat without being afraid or aggressively grabby. As with children, how and what we teach can nurture trust and patience – or diminish them.
I recently went to see a family with an 8-month-old Boston terrier named Penny. She was smart, energetic – and fear-aggressive to the point of snapping first and asking questions later when encountering people and dogs she didn’t know. Would she take a treat from my hand? Or would she bite me? I knew my preference. But puppy Penny had the sharp teeth, so her preference was of far greater concern to me!
When I started Day-One Dog Training fifteen years ago, I learned that even skittish dogs can be convinced of benign intentions with lots of patience and offers of tasty noms. Don’t force the issue; just toss treats so that each one moves a dog incrementally closer to where I’m sitting, and within fifteen minutes most dogs are willing to come up and calmly take treats from my hand.
Penny, however, would have fled, circled and barked non-stop. Her mom put her on a leash so Penny would have to hang out in our vicinity as we sat at the kitchen table. With the precision of clicker training (after determining that the sound of the clicker didn’t scare her), I started rewarding Penny with a click-treat each time she’d stop barking at me. She got the idea within a few repetitions: “Ohhh…being quiet gets me noms. I can do dat!”
Then we made a new rule: she had to be quiet and sit in order to earn her click-treats. Penny mastered that -- when asked, and when it was her idea -- and we soon advanced to requiring her to lie down to get what she wanted. And, almost imperceptibly, each treat I tossed to her landed a little closer to me.
Penny was focused and invested in the game, the rules of which made it easy for her to win her desired click-treats every single round. So we worked through the hour, giving her mom lots of practice at rewarding calm behavior with click-treats. Penny did equally well no matter who was delivering the rewards. But I doubted she’d feel brave enough to come over and take a treat directly from my hand. I offered a few times, but she just wasn’t ready for that literal step forward, and I didn’t want to push her and wash away all our progress.
And then, when our hour was up, Penny looked at me, thought for a second, and – totally on her own – came right up to me and asked to take a treat from my hand. Yaaaaay, Penny!
Is Penny cured? No. But with that one small step for a puppy, closing the distance between us, she took one giant leap for puppy-kind. She’s now a work in progress, and her humans know how to patiently replicate Penny’s experience with me with each new person she meets, to help her move forward…one step at a time.
I’m constantly amazed at the power of that little clicker in the palm of a human hand. If your dog has any behavioral quirks, problems or bad habits, clicker training is likely to be your fastest, most effective and most enjoyable road to improvement. Wherever you may be, you can find a trainer to show you how it works. You and your dog will be glad you did! If you’re in central Maryland, please contact me at http://dayonedogtraining.com. Click-treat!
Howard Weinstein started Day-One Dog Training in Howard County, Maryland in 1998. You can reach him through http://dayonedogtraining.com. He's also the author of Puppy Kisses are Good for the Soul & Other Important Lessons You & Your Dog Can Teach Each Other (available in both paperback and e-book at Amazon.com -- http://tinyurl.com/9rah6kg --