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Liz Langham, MS, CPDT-KA
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North Yarmouth, ME 04097
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Absence of Reward Training
When training a dog, one can use many different methods of training. Most frequently people reward a dog for a correct behavior (positive reinforcement), punish a dog for an incorrect behavior (negative reinforcement), or use a combination of both. I, as a trainer, use positive reinforcement and, what I call, absence of reward training. I temporarily remove access to the reward if the dog does not maintain a behavior I have cued him to do. Once the dog resets and maintains, the dog gets the reward. Rewards for a dog can be treats, play, going outside, coming out of the crate or x-pen, eating his meal, and love, to name a few.

Absence of reward training (ART) can start from the first day your dog comes home. Let’s say you limit your puppy to an x-pen when you can’t keep an eye on him (see Puppy Management Skills article). You want to let him out to play but you have to get him out of the pen by opening the gate. How ART starts: If the dog ‘pushes’ his way through the opening than that opening closes. No need to say anything. Just remove access to the reward-the place he wants to go, hence the term “absence of reward.” Once the dog resets (sits, or rocks back away from the opening-without you telling him), you start to re-open the gate. If he comes forward again, the gate gently closes. Repeat until the dog remains calm.

By gently closing the gate when your dog is trying to rush through, you are removing access to his desired location (outside the pen). The only way he can get-out is if he shows self control, or impulse control. This is truly the first step to your dog learning that he can get what he wants as long as he “keeps his cool.”

Dogs learn a lot from silent communication. The absence of reward speaks to the dog more than your emotional verbiage. Emotional verbiage will exacerbate your dogs emotional state. If your dog is really excited to come-out of the crate and the human keeps talking to the dog telling him to calm down, your dog will likely get more excited. Talking to, looking at, and touching reinforces, or gives attention to, a behavior.

Part of teaching ART is releasing your dog from the position. You will need to teach a release word. A release word tells your dog he is done doing what you cued him to do (the cue can be through your body language, or a verbal cue-brand new puppies don’t understand verbal cues). Suggestions of release words are; Break, Free, Go, You’re done, Release, Okay. When the dog hears this word he can move from where he is.

Let’s go over what we have learned and how it be applied. What is ART? Absence of reward means; removing access to the resource until the dog shows impulse control and connects with you. When a dog connects with you she maintains position, like sit, and, for upper level dogs, looks up toward you rather than out ahead. For instance, when a dog exits my training barn, she needs to sit and maintain while the handler opens the door. Outside the door are dog smells, dogs and handlers practicing dog agility, and chickens! Advanced dogs will sit and maintain and look up toward the handler until she uses a release word.

Imagine a world in which your dog waits to exit the house, enter the house, eat his meal, or play with another dog. Teaching your dog that you are the guide and your dog should look toward you for information will make for a mutual relationship rather than one driven by individual impulse. Ultimately, safety is a priority when owning a dog. When a dog learns to think before acting there will be less likelihood of him approaching an aggressive dog, getting hit by a car, guarding his food, etc. Now, go on and build a strong bond with your dog. Training helps strengthen the relationship and creates a mutual respect, interspecies.

Written by Liz Langhan
Liz Langham MS, CPDT mis the owner of Tree Frog Farm Dog Training and Agility in North Yarmouth, ME. She has been training dogs and their people since 1994. Liz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, mother of three, Master Gardener, and the guardian of 2 dogs, 1 cat, 1 guinea pig, and 11 chickens. Tree Frog Farm Personalized Dog Training and Agility Farm
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