I get a fair amount of push back from people when I say things like “patting him on the head isn’t a reward, he’s not liking it.” And maybe I should be more factual, “when you patted him on the head he ducked away and left you, or he started sniffing the ground, or he moved away and came to me, or he sat briefly then became rowdy with the kids or other dog.” Which means he did not feel it as a reward because when we’re rewarded we want more attention from the one rewarding us and we don’t feel the need to escape or distract.
One of the easiest ways to know how your interactions are going is to video them then review it several times; first time to see how silly you look, second to focus on what you wanted to look for, third to find other things you might want to improve and fourth to find the really good things you want to keep in place and be proud of for you and your dog.
Look for body posture that is open and interested, training that is fun for both of you. Look for consistency and clarity in how you ask for known cues. Look for patience on your part and persistence in trying to figure it out on the dog’s part. Look for the relationship. What do you think your dog is telling you with his actions, where does he look, what does he do if something is confusing? Just look and then think about what you might want to do. Jot it down so you remember.
I’m also in northern Wisconsin where a common training method is threatening – looming, angry voice in the ‘do it or else mode.’ I was attending an outdoor sports show today and at the tail end of it a man went walking by with his off-leash retriever, who he kept threatening to keep the dog from leaving him. The dog was low body-ing it and showing fear by ducking and tucking his tail, also he sat 4 feet away and wouldn’t come closer to his handler. I kind of wish I could have shown the guy a video of his training, I wonder what he would have seen.
Sometimes if a certain way of doing things is pervasive, it’s hard to see a problem in it. The video can give you a separate picture, a different point of view. And even if you would never think of being threatening, often the video process can make you a much better trainer because it lets you see what you actually did, not what you thought you did.
I know it’s a hassle to set up, but it’s really cool to see and very worth it. Then maybe you can tell the trainer what kind of rewards your dog really likes, because you’ll already have noticed that patting him on top of the head just doesn’t cut it.