Friday, 25 March 2011

Rethinking the Squeaky

Previously I posted about the importance, for successful training, of finding what it is that motivates your dog. If you want your dog to do something for you, you need to give them a reason. The dog will learn that if he or she listens and follows your commands, it will be worth their while. Many dogs will find a morsel of food motivating enough. However, some dogs are not as interested in food as you may expect, especially not in situations where there are a lot of other exciting things going on.

I have found that while treats are a big motivation for my greyhound boy Eddie, they are much less so for greyhound girl Cassie. Therefore, recall training with Eddie was fairly easy, but I had to work on finding a different reward to entice Cassie to come on command. It turned out she absolutely loved squeaky toys, so I used them as a way to reward her when she came back. It seemed to be a good idea.

Recently I have, however, been rethinking this strategy. I wasn’t entirely happy with the method anyway, as she wasn’t necessarily always coming to my call, but rather to the squeak of the toy. That is, I wasn’t sure how much she was actually learning to listen to me, rather than just following the squeak. Yes, she will get a reward if she comes, but she should understand that she gets the reward from me for an action she performs. At least half of the time it appeared to me as if she ignored my voice, but decided to come simply when she heard the toy. This doesn’t really constitute training, as she is just opportunistically going for the toy, like she would any other prey that would randomly appear on her horizon. I wasn’t really reinforcing the recall, but rather her obsession with the squeaky.

This became more clear to me recently. Cassie suffered a broken toe in January, and her exercise has been restricted for two months. Even when I started taking her on walks again after a month, I had to keep her on the lead. No running, and so, no squeaky toy. She is not keen on playing with squeakies on the leash, as she wants to run about with them.

Throughout these months I have noticed that she has grown more attentive to me. Of course, she was on a leash, so she kind of had to be, and also, she has now been with us for six months, and I also found with Eddie that this was time it took for him to really become attached to us. In any case, I have a feeling that not spending her walks chasing a squeaky around manically has made her pay attention to what the pack was doing more.

I have thus decided to restrict her play with the toy, and also the use of the toy as a lure. Indeed, now that her toe is healed and she is off lead again, it is clear that he has mellowed somewhat. She does keep closer and listen to me more. However, there are moments when she doesn’t, and I have resorted to squeaking the toy again, at it is a sure way to make her come back to me. I am not sure this is the right thing to do. As she really likes the toy, I would like letting her play with it at times, but I don’t want her to get too focused on it again. Certainly, I want consolidate her recall on my command. 

In fact, the advice given at the Greyhound adoption kennels at which I volunteer, is that squeaky toys should be avoided, because they reinforce the already strong hunting instinct of greyhounds. If you want a greyhound with good recall, the reasoning goes, you don’t want to encourage chasing in any way. While this makes sense, I have decided to allow my greys off lead and to chase in safe environments, as long as they come back to me afterwards, so I am not sure the squeaky will make that much of a difference. I am not really discouraging chasing, just encouraging obedience. On the other hand, I can see that I will need to modify my use of the squeaky toy if I am to use it in recall training. I need to make Cassie understand that it is a reward, not a bribe. I think the key is not to squeak it until she actually comes to me. This means I can't use it as a short-cut to make her come back, however, but I think spending some time to get this right may be beneficial in the long run.

If you have any experience or thoughts on this dilemma, please comment!

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