One of the first things you’ll be taught in most puppy or dog training classes is the philosophy that Nothing In Life Is Free. This is a simple distillation of one of the most basic rules of behavioral theory: behavior that’s rewarded is likely to increase, and behavior that’s not rewarded is likely to go away. You need to use all the things your dog or puppy wants–food, attention, a game of fetch–to as rewards to help them understand what YOU want. It’s pretty simple. Most people seem to try to follow the rule, even if it’s just asking Boomer to sit for her bowl of kibble.
It’s well established in my house that my dogs have to ask politely for everything, from affection to another throw of the ball. I thought this was good dog training, helping two high-drive working dogs learn self control and passable manners.
So it was surprising that one of the biggest breakthroughs in my own skill as a trainer was when I learned to reward my dog for nothing.
Vesper is a kinetic dog. She is either a body or mind in motion (sometimes both, though not always) until she is sleeping, and even then she’s back in a snap if you need her. Slow and careful have never been big in her repertoire–she’d much rather throw herself at a problem until she’s smashed it to bits.
Because of this, I’ve had a difficult time teaching her behaviors that require holding still. She can learn all kinds of complicated stuff as long as it involves moving as fast as she can, but if I ask her to go a mark and stop there, or to just sit and look at me, her mind starts going: “…what? This? This is all you want? You probably want me to do something more than this. Let me try something else. How about this paw? Do you want this paw? Do you want me to pick them both up at once? How about a back paw? Bow? Sit up? No? What do you want? Barking? How about I bark at you for a while OKAY BARKING NOW.”
I’ve recently decided to learn some formal obedience, since I don’t have much experience in it. I’ve said loudly before that Vesper will never be an obedience dog. She’s the opposite of an obedience dog. I’d recommend you do obedience with a partially-trained velociraptor first, actually. So of course I thought it would be a fun challenge to enroll V in an online obedience class–and not a cheap one, either.
At the same time, our veterinary behaviorist suggested I try teaching one of Dr. Karen Overall’s behavioral protocols to Vesper. It’s deceptively simple–you just watch your dog, and when you see their nostril flaring, indicating that they’re breathing in deeply, you click and give them a treat. The idea is the dog will eventually learn to start taking more longer, deeper breaths, and naturally become more physically relaxed. You’re learning how to reward your dog for slowing down, for a bodily function, for NOT doing something: basically, for doing nothing at all.
Hey, it works for me in yoga, I thought. Why not.
The first couple of times I tried, there was a lot of barking. There was crazy-eyed staring and offering of paws and performing of unasked-for tricks. But eventually I got a click in when I saw her draw a big breath (in between bouts of barking), and with a little patience I got another one in, and after about the third, she stared at me and took a another big breath right away.
It wasn’t all that easy. We moved forward and backward, but something about that concept, that she could be rewarded for just taking a breath, really blew my dog’s mind. She didn’t always have to be doing something. Sometimes she could just breathe.
And something about the process of waiting for it, breathing deeply myself, waiting for her to fill her lungs, gave me peace and patience to wait out all her frantic behavior. We got to a place where we could sit with a clicker and breathe together, no shrieking, no smashing things, no punching. This is woo-woo hippie nonsense at its absolute finest.
I found that, immediately, all of the demanding, precise obedience work that I thought Vesper could never do? Suddenly she could do it. She could hold a dumbbell in her mouth for seconds and stare at me in the eyes without chomping it, throwing it into the next room, dropping it into my toes (all things we’ve suffered through together, my poor patient toes). She could watch me for longer and longer without marching in place like she was about to shoot out of heel position and into the stratosphere. We’ve finished learning tricks we started literally years ago, but got stuck on, because I didn’t have the skill and she didn’t have the patience or precision to do the last little bit that would make them perfect.
And all from learning to reward my dog for doing nothing.