Why I Like Teaching Via Games | Exploits of an Amateur Dog Trainer: Blog Edition

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why I Like Teaching Via Games

When I do training with Wally, I always want to make up some kind of game to play to teach him whatever it is, or at least keep things moving fast and him excited all during training.

I find this helps us during training in the following ways:

  • He learns what we did much faster. I've read a few reasons for this that I'll get into later.
  • It keeps him from feeling uncertain if he makes a mistake. This helps him keep his mind engaged on trying to win the game instead of worrying about if I'm upset or if he's confused.
  • It builds a positive emotional association with training. Of course, this helps with all training in general. Whenever I grab the clicker, he's already excited and alert. 
  •  It keeps training interesting for ME. Hey, I'm important too. The more I want to train, the more I'll train, which means the more things he'll have an opportunity to learn.
  • It lets me test his progress in a lighthearted way. If he's winning easily, it's a skill he's either learned or at least it's time to up the challenge. 
  • And lastly, in keeping with the challenge point, increasing the challenge just means I've made the game harder. It's less of a shock than a whole new set-up scenario he has to re-figure out before trying to solve the problem.

Perhaps the most interesting and hardest to see of these is the first point, he learns faster. Of course, it's no big secret that play can enhance learning. We use play to teach human children. The whole industry of "edutainment" games and TV shows follows this idea. Play in and of itself is learning-in-process. From social skills to learning about rules and what is or isn't acceptable in groups, and so on. Much of the same is true in dogs, really. And probably in any social mammal.

But another reason is possibly the emotional connection, at least in dogs. It is said that dogs have heightened emotions and energy during play, making anything learned have a stronger imprint, so to speak, on the mind. While this is true in the negative sense, such as with intense fear or pain, it also works on the positive side.

In addition, games often engage the dog's prey drive, which makes it close to hunting-type behavior. Dogs will always remember how to get food. That's just instinctive. Tapping into this always helps. If "hunting" equals closing doors or stopping on a dime and laying down, then they'll do it and remember it.

So, in addition to being pure fun, I like games to help tap into his emotional state and use more of those instincts of his to teach him whatever I would like him to learn.

Has anyone else noticed a strong success when teaching their dogs by using games?