Salience, motivation, and good fortune in dog training.

The joy of finding a hot dog under the couch.

The legs and tail of a cream-coloured Poodle sticking out from under the sofa
(Photo: Jane Petrova/Shutterstock)

By Kristi Benson CTC PCBC-A, Special Correspondent

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As a dog trainer, I am often in the unenviable position of having to dismantle odd and oddly persevering mythologies about dogs. And dismantling mythologies isn’t actually that easy (it’s not as easy as training dogs, anyways). For some people, learning that their dog isn’t dominating or moral is somewhat hard to swallow, as it goes against the riptide of sad and iniquitous misinformation that they’ve been caught up in, probably since the first time they put eyes on a dog. 

Once, a class student—who I think was feeling mired in that exact flavour of reactive, cognitive-dissonance-fueled quicksand—tried to trip me up. I was in the middle of a spiel about why we need to reinforce behaviours forever, unless we are angling for extinction. He put up his hand and delivered his shot across the bow. 

“My dog found a hotdog once, under the couch. He checks that spot every day now and it’s been five years.” 

I remember his smirk, arms crossed and leaning back, the implied gotcha ringing clear. We all laughed, because of course, dogs, right? I parried (is that really all you got, man?) and class went on. Obviously dogs need to be motivated if we want them to respond to cues, that’s quite literally a law of nature. But his example is actually pretty fun and useful, when thinking about salience and motivation and behavioural expense and all that fascinating stuff.  

Years ago, I got home from a work trip to the Northwest Territories. Flying from Inuvik, a hundred kilometers from the Arctic Ocean, to Regina, a few hundred kilometers from the American border, is exhausting. It takes up to five separate short flights, which I’m reasonably sure well-qualifies it as absolutely soul killing. After waiting my turn to exit the cramped commuter plane into the small Regina airport, I made my way past the security doors and headed to the tiled stairs that would deliver me into the main arrivals area. At the bottom of the stairs I knew to expect anonymity among the bustle of reuniting families and bleary-eyed business travellers and eventually, eventually, my luggage. 

What I found instead was my soon-to-be wife, with our two dogs wearing bow-ties, and an engagement ring. She had made the three-hour trip to surprise me, organizing a farm sitter in secret. I was shocked and touched and won’t get all sappy on you, but go ahead and insert all the sappy feels into this narrative, if that’s your kettle of fish. We had discussed marriage when our relationship was new, almost a decade before, but we hadn’t really explored it again, despite it having become “legal” for us to wed in the intervening years (and yes, you can read bitterness there, if you want).

In the time since that proposal and our subsequent marriage, I have travelled back from Canada’s glorious north to the Regina airport many, many times. Each time, at the bottom of those tiled stairs, I find myself checking for (and fine, I’ll admit it: hoping for) my wife. Each time I am reminded of that day, and have what your friendly neighbourhood dog trainer would call a conditioned emotional response. Those stairs and that small arrivals lounge are special to me in a way that will probably never change. 

Oh, and another thing that hasn’t changed? If my boss wants me to continue to sit at my desk and do the work and take those soul-killing flights and write reports, she’s going to need to keep signing those paycheques. I don’t work for free...just like our dogs. 

Gotcha back, dude. 

Kristi Benson outside with two of her dogs

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where she will continue to help dog guardians through online teaching and consultations. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly retired and thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the woodstove.

Contact her through her website and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

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