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Q. I adopted my 2-year-old Mixed Breed, Smurf, from a shelter about four months ago. I work with him on training once or twice a week, but he hasn’t learned much. He's easily distracted and focuses only when I pull out treats, and even then he just wants to get the snack out of my hand and won’t follow instructions. We’ve had success on a few commands, but Smurf seems to forget them in a day or two. What am I doing wrong?
A. Smurf may be so focused on grabbing treats that he doesn’t understand it's his behavior that gets him the reward. I suggest you try a method called clicker training, which switches the dog’s mindset from watching the food to focusing on how his behavior produces the reward. With clicker training, you keep treats in a fanny pack and use a clicker to signal the instant that the dog displays the desired behavior. Once you press the clicker, reach into the bag for a reward. If you time the click with the moment that Smurf makes eye contact, you increase the chances that he'll focuses on you in the future.
Another tip: When you’re teaching Smurf a new behavior, train him in the same area of your house each time and gradually move to practicing behaviors in new spots only when he fully comprehends what is being asked of him. Dogs don’t generalize well, so although they may understand a new behavior they've been taught in the living room, they may not be able to perform the same task in the backyard. And the training environment be relatively free of distractions, such as people or other dogs. Keeping Smurf on a leash will also help him focus better on the activity at hand.
As for the treats, try to give about 10 per minute, or what is known as a reinforcement rate. Many trainers believe the reinforcement rate is what makes training successful — a higher reinforcement rate means the dog is rewarded more, making him more willing to pay attention to training. To check if you are using a high enough reinforcement rate, have someone count the number of treats you give Smurf during one minute of training.
You may also want to increase the frequency of training sessions to once a day. Just keep the sessions short and reward good behavior often.
Most important, never use punishment when training. That increases anxiety and decreases responsiveness. Individual dogs learn at different paces, and successful training embraces and caters to your dog's unique learning rate. Good luck!
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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