10 Things I Love About You

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The second major component of the foster pre-training program, after Nothing In Life Is Free, is a game I call "10 Things I Love About You." Like NILF, the purpose of this exercise is to quickly establish that you are worth paying attention to and that polite behavior earns rewards. It can also build value in your click or marker word if your foster dog is not already super-attuned to the meaning of that noise.

10 Things is not a formal training exercise in that you're not trying to teach any specific behavior. Instead, your job is to observe what your foster dog is already doing on her own and click/reward good behaviors. This encourages your foster dog to offer those behaviors more frequently -- in effect teaching herself to be polite -- and also to pay continual attention to you, because she never knows exactly when the next reward might be coming.

Here's how to play:

  • Take 10 small treats (anywhere from the size of a Tic-Tac for a toy dog or young puppy to the size of a blueberry for bigger mutts) and hide them in your pocket. You can stick them in a small Ziploc bag or wrap them in tinfoil if you don't want to get your clothes dirty, but you need to have the treats on you at all times and you need to keep them hidden. The game is much more effective if your dog doesn't know whether you're carrying treats. No using a bait bag for this exercise!
  • Watch for polite behaviors. Don't prompt them, don't give any cues or commands, just watch for the ones that the dog offers on his own. Some of these behaviors might include: lying down or sitting quietly, looking at you, walking by your side without prompting, waiting patiently by the door instead of charging through, investigating a previously scary object, staying in the crate... whatever you happen to notice. Try to keep an eye out for quiet, polite moments that might easily go unnoticed.
  • When you see a behavior you like, mark it and reward it. If you have a clicker on you, click. If you're using a marker word, say it. Then pull out a treat from your secret stash and reward your foster dog for being good. You can (and should!) also praise the dog and pet him, but be sure to give him his treat too.
  • Repeat over the course of the day until you have handed out all 10 treats.

You can use more treats, of course; Kathy Sdao recommends up to 50 repetitions per day. I advise starting with 10 treats because it's a little less intimidating at the beginning and it's just plain easier to keep 10 treats in your pocket than 50. But howevermany you use, the point is to dole out ALL of them over the course of the day. Every day. The countdown is a constant reminder to watch for good behaviors, and to reward them at least ten times every day.

If you have more than one foster dog, use 10 treats per dog. If you have resident dogs, be sure to encourage and reward them too; their good behavior shouldn't be taken for granted!

If you have a lot of dogs, it may be easier to keep bags of treats stashed in different rooms and locations around the house rather than try to stuff 30 treats into your pockets every morning, but do your best to be honest about the count and to get at least 10 repetitions in per dog, per day.

Note: As with everything in training, not every technique is suitable for every dog. If your foster is already an instant Velcro dog and stares at you constantly, it may not be appropriate to reward eye contact among the 10 Things; if you already have trouble getting your foster to emerge from her crate, it may not be advisable to reward her for staying in.

The purpose of this exercise is to enhance an early bond between you and the dog you're trying to train, but if your foster is prone to separation anxiety, adding yet more value to your presence may be the last thing you want. As you practice this exercise, along with all the others, please be mindful of how your foster dog is responding.