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The Dog Earn and Learn Program

There are lots of reasons why our dogs might be slow to respond to Obedience Commands or seemingly refuse to obey them all together.  By incorporating the Earn and Learn Program into your daily interactions with your dog you can address several of these, including but not limited to:

Practice – our dogs may need more practice to become fluent. Dogs need far more practice than most of us realize to really ‘get it’.  And, they need to be trained in a variety of environments with a variety of distractions before they understand how to apply knowledge to any situation.  Read more about this under the article titled Generalization.

Relevance – our dogs can question the relevance of our requests. We need to help them understand that our requests have meaning and consequences.

Status – our dogs may feel their status is greater than ours.  This can occur when dogs are given everything they want, when they want, without having to earn it.  Read more about this under the article on Leadership.

Punishment - our dogs may have been consistently punished when s/he did comply with a specific command.  This is most often the case when ‘come’ is used.  If we ask our dogs to ‘come’ then take them away from something they enjoy like playing with other dogs we have just punished them for coming to us.  Another example would be calling our dogs to ‘come’ when they are about to be reprimanded for destroying something or making a mess.

Focus – our dogs may not be focused on us enough to hear our requests.  Most of what we say during the day has little to do with our dogs so it should come as no surprise that our dogs often tune our words out.  Be sure to make eye contact with your dog and/or say your dogs name before making a request.

Impulse Control – our dogs may not have learned how to control their impulses around certain distractions yet.

So what is the Earn and Learn Program?

With the Earn and Learn Program we give our requests meaning and consequences that our dogs can easily relate to and understand. We do this by asking them to earn all those daily rewards we so often provide for free.

To get started with the Earn and Learn Program you should first make a list of rewards you provide your dog with a regular basis.  Rewards can be anything your dog enjoys – see the list below for ideas. Once this list is complete all you need to do is require that your dog do something for you before you provide those Rewards – examples are provided below.

Note: When starting this program it’s easy to miss opportunities to use it so I always suggest posting the Rewards list up on the fridge or some other convenient location where it can serve as a reminder and easy reference guide.  It’s also a good idea to get everyone in your home to follow this program so your dog gets lots of practice while learning that everyone’s requests are relevant.

Examples of Rewards:

Examples of how you could incorporate this program:

The Golden Rule – Your dog should have a basic understanding of a command BEFORE you use these rewards for training.  If, after three tries, your dog fails to successfully complete the exercise you should lower your criteria or ask for a different behavior.

Call your dog to ‘come’ before providing play, walks or meals.  If your dog doesn’t comply call one more time, if he still doesn’t respond go to your dog, take him gently and kindly back to the spot you called him from and say something like “there’s a good dog, good come”, then release.  Do not act angry or disappointed as you approach your dog, this will only build negative associations with the command and reduce the likelihood of your dog coming to you in the future.  Now try the exercise again.  Do your best to set your dog up for success this time by ensuring he is not too distracted or too far away and be sure to say ‘come’ in an upbeat manner. If you associate the word ‘come’ with wonderful rewards on a regular basis you will be well on your way to developing a strong recall.

While preparing your dogs meal and before setting the food bowl down ask for a ‘sit-stay’. If your dog breaks the stay put the food up on the counter for a minute and try again.  He should not be allowed to go for the bowl till you give the release command ‘okay’ and/or tell him to ‘take it’.

Ask your dog to ‘sit-stay’ while putting the leash on.  If your dog doesn’t hold the ‘stay’ as you put the leash on, put the leash back up for a minute and try again.

Before taking your dog through doors (or gates) ask for a ‘wait’ a few feet from the door. Slowly open the door and take a step out before releasing your dog.  If your dog breaks the ‘wait’ at any point in this process close the door, making sure all your dogs body parts are clear of the door and start over.  Make sure a leash is on your dog when doing this exercise if there is any chance they could escape your property.

Show your dog you have a toy and ask for a ‘down’ before initiating play.  If your dog goes into the ‘down’ let the games begin!  If your dog does not lie down put the toy away for a minute then try again.  Take breaks often during play time and ask for other behaviors before continuing play.

Ask your dog to ‘heel’ then provide loose leash or off-leash time as reward for a job well done.

Ask your dog for any behavior while out walking.  If your dog fails to comply, say the command again ensuring that you have your dogs attention and stand perfectly still until he complies, then start the walk again.

Ask your dog for a ‘watch me’ before providing access to the yard or greeting a dog.  Walk away for failure to comply, then re-approach and try again.

Here’s some good practice for those avid jumpers - ask your dog to ‘sit-stay’ when greeting new people. Ask people not to pet your dog until he does so.  You may also want to step on the leash or take hold of the collar to ensure your dog can’t jump.  Practice this enough and your dog will start to automatically ‘sit’ when people approach.

If your dog politely requests attention ask for a ‘sit’ before providing that attention.  If your dog demands attention - ignore it.  Demanding attention = regular and/or persistent solicitation for your attention.  Read article on Leadership for reasons why this behavior should be ignored.

If your dog has learned other obedience commands or tricks be sure to incorporate those as well.

Eventually, your dog will be eagerly awaiting your requests because they have come to predict good things!

Cynthia Edgerly, owner of Bingo! Dog Training in Watsonville, CA, is a Professional Dog Trainer & Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.

Bingo Dog Training proudly provides boarding school for dogs, private dog lessons, group training classes and dog behavior help in the following California cities: santa cruz, prunedale, aromas, freedom, corralitos, seaside, marina, pacific grove, scotts valley, watsonville, castroville, salinas, carmel, aptos, soquel, ben lomond, felton, pebble beach.