Updated: May 31, 2021
I was recently watching a video series of a dog trainer working with a fearful German Shepherd Dog who had previously been trained using harsh methods. He was taking the time necessary to create a positive conditioned emotional response in the dog to himself as his new trainer. After a few sessions of strictly working with the dog on an emotional level he then began trying to incorporate some shaping of a couple of basic skills. It was during this session he determined it was time to “up the ante” on what he was using as a reinforcer for the dog and break out what he referred to as the “secret sauce,” which was some raw food mix that the dogs he works with go crazy for.
This got me thinking about the term “secret sauce” in general and how many times humans get sucked into trying the latest skin product, or diet plan, or money making strategy. If something is advertised to us as a little-known way to get us the results we want without the time, effort, pain, and sacrifice needed, many of us fall hook, line, and sinker. It makes me think of that “iron triangle” analogy that asserts there are always three options in life - fast, good, cheap – but that you can only have two at the same time. As an impatient person who gets an extra kick of dopamine when I get a great “deal,” but then often can be heard muttering, “I will never buy cheap crap again,” I am an absolute sucker for “secret sauce.”
If you find yourself in the same boat as me, then I have some good news and some bad news to share with you. The good news is I’m going to tell you what’s in the secret sauce of dog training. The bad news is that none of the sauce ingredients even remotely sound like the words fast, good, or cheap.
The secret sauce of dog training is composed of three things, not unlike the “iron triangle,” but different in that all three can happen at the same time. Each one is equally as important as the other for an effective sauce that will deliver the results you want.
We humans live in an instant gratification era. We get access to most things we want quickly and easily, whether that be information from our phones or coffee filters from Amazon. Effective and ethical dog training isn’t like that. It requires perseverance when things don’t go as planned and a commitment to going at our dogs’ pace.
Behaviour change is all about consequences. In order for a dog to make the connection between a certain behaviour (like pottying outside) and the consequence (like praise and a treat), we need to have good timing. We need to make sure that the consequence comes within seconds following the behaviour we want to address. Otherwise, the dog won’t make the connection.
Consequences need to be timely, but they also need to be consistent. For example, if a dog is a counter-surfer, you might teach him that the counters are boring by keeping them free of enticing snacks. But if your partner sometimes leaves his half-eaten breakfast there and Fido discovers (and subsequently devours) it, then it will be much harder to teach him to stop jumping up on counters.
Mix these three ingredients together, and you’ve got yourself a secret sauce recipe for effective behaviour change.