You like having options and so does your pet, which can mean a win-win situation for everyone

CINCINNATI - We are pleased to introduce a new feature for pets and their families from Cincinnati's own Lisa Desatnik of So Much PETential.

If your dog (or other pet) were given a choice, what would he choose as his very most favorite food or activity?

What is a food or activity that he enjoys in the quiet setting of your living room but doesn’t hold his interest if there is another choice available?

If you know the answer to those questions, then great for you! You have taken your first step toward setting your pet and yourself up for training success.

Choice is the key word.

Giving animals choices is how I like to teach them, but making the choices that I want them to make the most valuable and easiest to do means the likelihood of my seeing those "wanted" choices more will increase exponentially.

How do I know that? Well, science tells me so. Edward Thorndike called the relationship between behavior and its consequences the law of effect.

The law states that the strength of a behavior depends on the consequences the behavior has had in the past. In other words, behavior is a function of its consequences. If that behavior serves to get the animal something of value, then the animal will do that behavior more.

I see this law every time I interact with an animal and every time I observe others doing the same. This week I was working with a lab who was filled with energy, running around and jumping--behaviors some would characterize as "out of control."

I asked him to sit and wait, then told him a release cue to get a Kong activity toy with some food. Suddenly this out of control dog became very focused on trying to get that food out. I then worked with him on some games to teach self control but my point is that, he made choices in that hour because those choices resulted in consequences of value.

Let’s go back to those first questions and why they are important.

Knowing that your pet will choose to do behaviors that get him the highest value outcome, it is up to you as his teacher to give him a reason to want to stay focused on your lesson so that you can teach in the most positive way.

When you begin teaching a behavior in an environment with no distractions, a dog biscuit or low value toy may be enough. As you increase difficulty with various criteria in various settings, those things may not be enough. There are other reasons why your dog may lose focus too but for this article I am focusing on the reinforcement you are using.

I may be able to use dog treats, for example, when working on a focus exercise inside; however, if I take that lesson outdoors where I am competing against the distractions of grass, mailboxes, trees, or people walking by, I had better have a stock of whatever my dog finds of huge value with me. Otherwise, I will be setting us both up for failure, because chances are pretty great that he will make choices I will not like.

Creating your dog’s Awesome List

1. There are generalities, but realize that every animal is an individual and it is the learner that gets to choose what is the most reinforcing to him.

Some dogs (like border collies, although remember each one may have a different preference) may prefer the opportunity to chase a Frisbee to a tasty treat. Meat, liver, chicken and cheese generally may be higher value than a cookie but again it is what your dog finds of value. If you don’t know, offer him choices and see what he chooses.

2.On your list, include a column for food, toys and distractions.

3.Once complete, go back through and rank your items by:

A – over the top value
B – valued unless there is something better available
C – will choose in ideal conditions
D – will chose occasionally

Now you and your pet are ready for awesome!

About Lisa Desatnik

Lisa Desatnik said she used "Look at me," training to remind her dog Sam what to do for this holiday photo shoot. 

Lisa is always looking for opportunities to strengthen her skills--both for her own pets and to help other animal caregivers through in-home dog training consultations, speaking engagements, written work. She is part of the leadership team for Dr. Friedman’s international companion parrot owner group teaching mini-lessons of applied behavior analysis.

Check out her blog and website.  You can also connect with her via the So Much PETential Facebook Page,  and follow her on Twitter  and Google+.

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