14. “All Or None” Reward Training

Ian Dunbar, one of the patriarchs of humane dog training, tells this story about his British TV show. If you’re looking for a real “dog whisperer”, Dunbar would be a prime candidate. (Be sure to check out his website, Dogstar Daily, a huge resource for info on understanding and training your dog.)

Ian Dunbar w/ his dog Dune
Ian Dunbar w/ his dog Dune

Here’s the story as I remember it: The producers would want him to train a behavior on the air, with a dog who was not previously trained. Dunbar would arrive at the set, and they’d sit him and the dog down, somewhere out of the way, while they spent an hour doing setup. By the time they got to filming, the dog would already be trained. Just by hanging out with the dog, watching his behavior, and rewarding what he liked, Dunbar would have just naturally gotten the dog under control.

This is a very informative lesson for folks who won’t find the time for dog classes or daily training sessions. It basically comes down to this:

  • Watch the dog. Reward behaviors that you like (which includes anything that isn’t problematic).
  • Remove any possible rewards for behaviors that you don’t like. (This usually means ignoring the dog and giving it no attention if it’s misbehaving).

Watch the 3 short videos below for more info on Dunbar’s “All Or Nothing Reward Training” method.

First, the explanation:

Then a demo:

Finally, watch this approach practiced in a classroom situation:

When dog owners say, “My dog was so smart, he just understood what I said from the beginning!”, they usually mean that they were unconsciously offering rewards (attention, belly rubs, kind words, treats, freedom to romp) that the dog valued.

For example, your dog picks up a tennis ball. You take it from him and throw it. He runs and gets it, and brings it back to you. Here’s what’s happening: Dogs recognize the chain of “behavior producing a consequence”. In this case his behavior is bringing the ball. The positive reward, or consequence, is him getting to chase the ball. The bringing it back part is him reproducing the behavior in order to repeat the positive consequence. Somewhere in there, the dog starts to associate the word “ball” with the body language you display when you say, “get your ball”, and the training has been achieved, mostly by the dog.

I’m a big fan of working with your dog to produce the results you want. Performing lots of repetitions, using an organized form of training, is like going to the gym and putting in the reps in order to increase your fitness; it’s not always fun, but you try to make it fun, and you know it’s good for you.

The form of natural training we’re alluding to here is like going for a hike in the hills with your friends: It is intrinsically fun, and the  increase in fitness is a by-product.

This method also raises your awareness of the fact that “training” happens every time you interact with your dog, and it’s a “plus” if you can recognize; 

  1. Who’s Training Who?
  2. What Behavior Is Being Rewarded Or Discouraged.

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