It's about more than just a paycheck.
"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." This may not always be true for people- starving artists know what I'm talking about- but the same is not true for our dogs.
This topic came up at our most recent seminar and I want to shed some more light on it.
This is a self-explanatory function of psychology- something that is inherently valuable is something that feels good for the sake of doing it.
There is inherent value in self-rewarding behaviors:
Why do all of these behaviors typically persist long after most people attempt to extinguish them? The "feel good" factors involved far outweigh the potential consequences if "caught" doing them. Most of these behaviors spawn from instinctual traits- dogs have to communicate, they have to hunt, and they have to investigate. Because of the deeply rooted bases for these behaviors, they are self-rewarding and difficult to extinguish once they've begun.
Self-rewarding, instinctual behaviors are the behaviors within sports that take honing, but not true generation of the behavior itself.
Many of these sports are breed-specific because we have taken generations of dogs and specifically created them to perform these tasks, and perform them well. Hunting, tracking, and biting are not traits we teach these dogs; rather, we facilitate enhanced and specific expression of these traits.
Developing Value in the Work Itself
But, there is another form of inherently valuable behaviors. These are the behaviors a dog performs because of a strong history of reinforcement.
During the learning stage of behavior generation through positive reinforcement, the dog is looking for a "paycheck". It is completing the task in expectation of receiving something reinforcing (usually food or toys). In this phase, the best part of training and working is when the reward happens.
At some point, usually around the time of competency and fluidity, the switch flips. The dog is now working not simply for the primary reinforcer; the dog is working for the sake of working, because work itself has become inherently valuable. Some dogs don't even need any history of positive reinforcement; for many working breeds, or those bred specifically for certain tasks, the work presented to them has an automatic inherent value and requires no external motivator.
Is this not because of random reinforcement schedules?
There is a difference between a dog thinking "this might be it!" and performing a task on the off-chance that a reward will be presented afterwards, and a dog working for the sake of working.
We see this in the working world specifically, much more so than in competitive sports.
In the working world, a dog is tasked to perform a behavior, and that behavior is not to win a title or get a ribbon- it's usually to save a life, or the life of a business. These dogs MUST perform, and must perform well. The chance that they don't is a chance that can't be taken. These dogs are not trained through random reinforcement, they are trained through continuous reinforcement.
But, the work they do in the field is not always reinforcing. Bomb detection dogs searching bag after bag after bag in airports. Search and rescue dogs covering hundreds of acres and coming up empty. Medical alert dogs must be working 24-7-365. Guide dogs must work tirelessly, and proficiently, dodging cars and, as the case was on 9/11, sometimes airplanes. Patrol dogs regularly fight through gunfire to apprehend suspects.
* Click on the pictures to read the following full stories.*
Please read these dogs' stories. Read all stories of working dogs. In these stories you'll see the passion, the commitment, the inherent value these dogs find in their work. Their success or failure can mean life or death for their handlers.
Inherent Value for the Sporting Dog
The "jobs" our dogs do as sporting dogs are not nearly as critical as the jobs of working dogs, but for any dog fancier who considers sporting a passion, it can sometimes feel that way.
We must be careful the amount of stress and pressure we put on our dogs to perform these otherwise meaningless tasks. At the end of the day, these are GAMES, these are fun activities that we choose to do with our dogs. We should all feel good and happy about playing these games, otherwise they become chores or, worse, anxieties.
Your dog should ALWAYS, and I mean ALWAYS be excited to be working with you. If this is not the case, you have either put too much pressure on the dog to perform when your dog was not ready or was unable, or your dog simply does not like the game you want it to play. Not all border collies herd, not all labrador retrievers retrieve, not all blood hounds track, not all jack russels hunt. Just because you think your dog "should" do something, doesn't mean they want to. If your dog looks like it doesn't want to, it's not trying to get one over on you, it's not trying to "dominate" you, it's not trying to be stubborn or bullheaded or thick- it's trying to say "I'm uncomfortable, this doesn't feel good, I'm anxious/afraid/unsure and I either need a little more guidance or this isn't the right sport for me".
Now let's say your dog IS excited for the work. How can we maintain that?
1. Keep things interesting. You must be aware of your dog's personality- if something is not challenging enough, they may lose interest. Keeping your training dynamic and routine-free keeps the game fun and engaging, and helps develop inherent value.
2. Use high rates of reinforcement for challenging endeavors. Dogs learn how to trust us through difficult times by being successful when they are challenged. If you only reward for a finished picture and never reward for effort, your dog will be less likely to continue to try. Failure to try in training will result in a failure to try in competition.
3. Understand stress and how to mitigate it. A stressed dog can and will carry that negative emotion through the rest of its training. While we introduced our students to small amounts of manageable stress to prepare them for competition, this should be very minimal. If your dog is stressed during training, lower your criteria, identify the cause of the stress, and work to mitigate it then and prevent it in the future.
4. Understand what your dog looks like when it's "happy" and when it's just "going through the motions". We see a lot of "going through the motions" in all sports, even sports as exciting as flyball and agility. The dogs are performing their tasks not because they want to but because they feel like they need to. These behaviors become compulsive instead of rewarding and prevent the development of inherent value. If your dog is just "going through the motions" either take a break or find out if this is really the sport for your dog.
5. Never work a sick dog. In the working world, dogs must work with blistered pads, through dehydration and exhaustion, through mental fatigue and sometimes physical ailments. They must because they're usually the only ones who can. While handlers try their best, sometimes not working is not optional. In the sporting world, working a sick or injured dog can generate negative conditioned emotional responses, affect performance, and potentially forever alter your dog's ability to perform. Count those entry fees as 'losses' and keep your dog home.
Titles are not the only mark of success
What does this mean? Just because a dog CAN do something doesn't mean it SHOULD and doesn't mean it WANTS to. Achieving titles with a dog that doesn't want to be there is a fruitless effort and a way to stroke one's ego.
Sports are getting more difficult, more precise, requiring more and more engagement and teamwork. If you're gunning for titles, the last thing on your mind should be how many points/legs/Qs/etc. to get to the next one. Track your training log- those are the only stats that really matter.
Focus on your dog NOW- if they're enjoying it now, if they're having fun now, if they're developing inherent value NOW, you won't ever need to worry about that next title. Competing isn't about being better than everyone on the field- the rules of the world dictate that even if you get a first place once, eventually someone will be better- competing is about being better than you were the last time you stepped up to the line.
Your greatest competitor is and always will be yourself. The greatest gift of sporting with dogs is that they don't know and don't care about where they're ranked, who they're competing against, what titles they have, or how many ribbons they've won. If you have developed an inherent value for the work within your dog, your dog is stepping up to the line with you to be the best it can be, to achieve with you, to perform its task with the utmost ability and desire.