Building Trust using Positive Reinforcement

The dogs SeBPRA rescue, the Setters, Brittanys and Pointers, are breeds heavily predisposed to love and trust humans, but often their first hunter owners have not built a relationship with them or may have treated them harshly and dented that trust. Once they are in a loving home the trust can be rebuilt, and enjoyable training can boost their confidence and build a closer relationship with you.

We often suggest snuffle games initially with the dogs, basically a handful of dog food scattered into the grass for them to find. Over the coming weeks this can be expanded into searching for food in a pile of unwanted cardboard boxes, or a treasure hunt around the garden. This sniffing out food is a great way to distract and calm dogs, but it also releases dopamine, the ‘feel good’ hormone. As the dogs become successful at harder search games their confidence increases.

Training simple tricks is also a great way to improve communication between you and your dog, give them a confidence boost and build the trust. I like to look for things that are easy to lead the dog into, I find putting two paws up onto a log for example is sometimes much easier than teaching sit as a first lesson. Remember this training is all about building confidence and trust, not learning a useful action particularly, so choose something that your dog likes to do.

It is vital that all the training uses positive reinforcement; that means watching for the behaviour you want and rewarding it, then as the dog repeatedly offers the behaviour and is rewarded, you can then add in your chosen hand signal or word. This is not about forcing the dog to sit for example, by pushing the bottom down or pulling up on a slip lead, this sort of forced training is very likely to be counterproductive, it can confuse or scare the dog, as they are forced into something and then given a treat. It is highly likely to stress the dog, it does not promote positive learning nor confidence building and may damage the trust you are trying to build with your dog. All training should be about positive reinforcement, this is particularly important for rescue dogs, all training should be fun for your dog.

Some dogs will quickly become your shadow which can be very endearing, but also it is important they gain enough resilience to be able to settle without you sitting with them. If they are always following you, we recommend trying the flitting game by the Flitting Game by Emma Judson. This is basically allowing the dog complete freedom to choose to follow you or not, but you become so busy and boring wandering around the house that the dog gives up following and settles somewhere to wait. This is then repeated and increased to encourage the dog to settle even when you leave the house. It is a lovely strategy because the dog can choose to be with you, they are never shut away from you, they can check up on you as often as they like, they are not stressed and they gain some resilience which is a great thing.

Initially recall can be fantastic as the dog is unsure and wants to do the right thing, like a new house guest. We sometimes call this the honeymoon period and that fabulous recall on walks is not likely to last. At some stage the dog’s desire to hunt is going to be greater than their obligation to you. It is vitally important that you spend time on walks building up engagement with them, not ignoring them. They need to understand that you are on an adventure together rather than this is their hour of freedom to make their own adventures. What can you do together on the walk to make it more rewarding and fun for both? It will no doubt involve a lot of sniffing, but these dogs love working with you and once they understand you share an aim on the walk it can be so rewarding and will help build that relationship and trust. It may even help the mystical recall.

Giving the dog choice and the ability to ask for things is a wonderful way to boost their confidence. Often this is just a question of being open to the idea that the dog might like to have a say in things, like where their bed is placed or where they eat, and when you see a little request you respond positively to the request to show you understand. For example, try a dog walk where they choose the route and lead you to their chosen walk. Or if you see the dog pointing at a ball, or bringing you a tuggy toy, then respond to that request, turn away from the screen and have a five minute game with your dog right then, when they have suggested it. Obviously there will be times when you are not going to be able to yes, like making dinner for them six times a day, but this is really like any good parent, you sometimes have to decline, but can you offer something else instead? Once the dog realises communication is a two way thing it does have some great advantages, for instance the dog may even come and request a game with you instead of making up its own private game with your new boots.

It can be a long slow journey with a rescue dog, but finding ways to building confidence, trust and communication is so valuable. Both you and your dog will get so much more from your relationship and be able to do so many more things together. It will feel like two steps forward, one step back at times, but look back over the months and you will realise how far you have both come.  

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