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What Makes an "Easy" Dog- Motivating Dogs Beyond Food and Toys

My Control Unleashed class presently has an Azawakh, a Saluki, a Silken Windhound, and Foxhound mix. A lot of trainers would be tearing out their hair. I'm in absolute heaven.

Bestest girl - American Akita Attu

Give me ten Coonhounds over 1 Lab. Twenty Akitas (American or Japanese, dealer's choice) over 1 Border Collie.

To be clear, there are a ton of Border Collies and Labs in my life that I adore. But the fact is, how the majority of society understands dog training is geared specifically for food and toy motivated dogs bred specifically to work closely with people. We slap the label biddable on them and move on.

You hear all the time that Azawakh are hard. That Akitas are difficult. The Anatolians are challenging. That Welsh Terriers are mercurial (okay, no one uses that term, but it's certainly fitting). You hear advice that those breeds aren't for first time dog owners. To start with a Lab or a Golden Retriever.

Guess what? I find Labs, Border Collies, Goldens, Aussies, and all of the most popular, traditionally biddable breeds extremely hard to work with. I've said it before, if my first breed of dog had been a Lab, I wouldn't be in dogs today. I have sensory processing issues and there are a lot of traits that most popular breeds possess that trigger those.

I work part time at a dog daycare. It’s a nice work environment, so even though I could be making better money training, I stick around. The facility also has boarding. Boarding dogs go out to play in the morning and then go back inside and have their breakfast. There’s a number of reasons for this order of operations but the big ones are preventing play on an empty stomach, often leading to vomiting. As well as limiting chances of bloat. However, there is very little more grating on my senses that a Lab that hasn’t had their breakfast yet. And to be honest, I look at most Lab’s level of food drive and I feel a bit bad for them, because it is so compulsive and obsessive they can almost focus on nothing else.

There is a huge movement among certain sectors of the dog training industry around the fact that all dogs need food to live and thus all dogs are food motivated. I’ll concede, that’s true of all dogs, if a dog is hungry enough. But withholding food to build drive sits poorly with me. I can already hear the people objecting- you can build food drive without withholding food. That’s true but I think there doesn’t need to be a huge focus on building food drive, because generally, when a dog isn’t readily working for food, there’s typically another factor in the environment that is more motivating.

In my Control Unleashed class, there are a couple of dogs that don’t want to leave their owners. Not atypical. In that class I typically use my own personal dog for most demo work. However, there is also benefit in those dogs learning how to step away from their owner and have some self-possession. So I ask for a couple behaviors and instead of rewarding with food, which they don’t want and in fact, they actively find it aversive to take food from me, I release them back to their owner as their reward.

In the class (based on Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed), especially when I’m working with hounds, terriers, primitive breeds, and other environmentally aware and motivated breeds, I teach the Take A Break game very early on. The game plays with the Premack Principle which states that any low probability behavior can be reinforced using a high probability behavior. In the case of hounds that usually means- your high probability behavior is sniffing and engaging with the environment. Your low probability behavior is engaging with the handler. Thus you can reward engagement with you with engagement with the environment. To play Take a Break you ask the dog for a couple of very well know behaviors (Touch, Sit, Shake, Spin, Place, etc) and then release them to go sniff and then wait for them to reengage with you by offering a default behavior (essentially asking to work again). For most breeds that default behavior tends to be a sit, with sighthounds who aren’t as fond of sitting, it’s quite often standing and staring at you. You then repeat. You can gauge the dog’s interest and how close they are to going over threshold by how quickly they return attention to you. You know that you’ve made progress when you dismiss the dog and they don’t take you up on it, but instead offer a default behavior indicating they’d like to keep working.

This is the very beginning of engagement work for me. My personal dogs learn it, my client dogs learn it, my litters learn it. I also teach follow work this can be done in a variety of ways. One of my favorites is the Choose to Heel game. Ideally I start out off leash, but if I’m working in a public space I’ll work the dog on a long line, simply holding the end. I start walking in a circle and when the dog starts to follow, I mark, and toss the treat away. I continue walking as the dog eats the food. When the dog starts to follow, I mark and reward by tossing the treat. As the dog eagerly starts to follow, I start to tighten the criteria towards an actual heel before marking. I also will add duration in the position before marking. This game also utilizes the Premack Principle and it’s great for all breeds, but in particular I love it for independently minded dogs that want to feel free and not managed, often such dogs don’t enjoy luring work.

Looking at the exercise what is the primary motivating factor? Yes, you are rewarding with food, but for independently minded dogs the freedom and release from pressure tend to be more motivating than the food itself.

Food is considered a primary reinforcer. Primary meaning it is of primary importance to the dog’s existence. They need to reinforcer to live. Thus, it is typically considered to be the most valuable reinforcer to all dogs. Having worked as wide an array as I have, I must say that there are some breeds (and individuals) where food is not the greatest motivating reinforcer. Often the most rewarding reinforcer for such individuals is freedom and agency. And, in truth, I would argue that both are primary to a dog’s existence.

My two racing Azawakh in flyball (Anubi and Amidi) run for food. Flyball is a sport where they typical reward is a tug/toy. When I first started, I tried for over a year to build Anubi’s tug drive. He loves flirt pole, he lives for amateur straight racing, he has run live game so he does have prey drive. But tugging was not a reinforcer for him. Yes, I can build tug drive. I’m actually pretty decent at it, but if you have to work extremely hard to build that drive, then it’s rather likely that there’s a more natural, motivating reinforcer available. Additionally, it can be extremely frustrating for a handler that wants to work on more than simply building tug drive. So I run Anu and Ami for food. However, the thing is that there is a difference between a dog that is of the mindset: go take jumps, get ball, take jumps, get reward. And the Azawakh who really are not going through the whole rigamarole of running the pattern just for a bite of cheese. They run the pattern because they love the thrill of competition. They run the pattern because they love working with me. They run the pattern because they love having a purpose. They don’t want the destination. They want the journey.

I remember trying out a new agility class. I have taken agility from the same instructor (who I love) for four years now and with Amalu, who is extremely naturally gifted in the sport, I was considering taking additional lessons. I showed up to try out the class and ran Amalu. The instructor, who is very talented both as an exhibitor and as an instructor kept interrupting us and telling me to reward after 3-4 obstacles and Amalu who had come into the new space a little high on adrenaline, but overall very eager to work, started to shut down. Check out. Which she had never done before. As she checked out more and more the instructor told me to give her food more and more which caused her to eventually stop working and try to leave the arena. The problem? Amalu found me stopping her rhythm, interrupting her sequencing with food to be highly aversive. All my Azawakh who I run in agility want to do course work, get their reward, then go back and sequence the pieces that need refinement. They hate stopping because they find it a rude interruption.

Honestly, looking back, I think it was a tipping point for her relationship with agility for a very long time. The instructor certainly meant well and she was more open minded than most agility instructors whose classes I’ve audited, but there was still a huge disconnect in her understanding of how my breed works.

Alu doing wall work, credit Lens Moments

I was doing a flyball seminar with Anubi and we were doing wall work (swimmer’s turn on the wall) and the teacher kept telling me to reward my dog. But he wasn’t taking food or tug. He was about 18 months old at the time and getting up and performing with a stranger watching him from six feet away put a lot of pressure on him. So I praised and petted him and he did tricks. And within a few repetitions of that, the instructor stopped me thoughtfully and noted that he probably didn’t need a tug or even food, because he seemed to work better for the praise.

I get potential puppy buyers who ask me all the time if Azawakh are food motivated. The answer is – they will work for food, but it’s not their primary motivator. They’ll search for food in scent work. They’ll play clicker games in rally. But at the end of the day whether I train with food or not makes almost no difference. I literally forget that there are a lot of people who have a hard time fading away from food for competition (rally, obedience, agility, etc) because it’s never been a problem for me. Again, the journey is the reward. I don’t want to take my dogs and repackage them so they fit neatly into a box that people know how to train. I want to take what naturally motivates them and work as partners.

This all comes back to the title of this post- there is this conception that popular, handler-oriented breeds are easier. In the past week alone, I’ve had probably a dozen different conversations where people say: X isn’t an easy breed. Y is a hard breed. Z isn’t for first time dog owners. There is a lack of recognition that there is no universally easy breed. Yes, a Labrador or a Golden fits more of society than a Boerboel or an Azawakh. But they’re not a universally easy, well-suited to everyone breed. Because that doesn’t exist.

Most (not all, there are always exceptions) Sporting and Herding breeds are viewed as easy because the training methods we mostly utilize work well for them. Most Sporting and Herding breeds also are more forgiving of errors. If you make a lot of training and raising errors with a Lab, most of the time what that means is they are rather unruly. They might bark annoying and knock people over and steal food. But generally, the chance of people getting hurt is relatively low.

With an Azawakh that margin of error is less. If you make training and raising errors it’s more likely for you to get a neurotic dog that is prone to lashing out. And I’ll concede, that certainly can be construed as a component of “easy”.

Anubi relaxing at class

But to me things like: training an off switch (Place, Down/Stay, etc), keep off, leave it with food, polite greetings and much much more is onerous and difficult. For me, some of the issue is that I spend all day training those behaviors. I really don’t want to get done with my work day and then train those more in my own dogs. So I want to live with dogs that are quiet unless barking is warranted, have no desire to jump on people, who naturally are prone to ignoring other people and dogs, who have little desire to take food off the ground.

I don’t teach puppy classes very often these days, it’s not where my passion lies (plus is much easier to find a trainer versed in training puppies compared to finding one versed in working with a reactive Anatolian Shepherd). However, when I did, I always asked people why they got the breed they did. As an example I would talk about my dogs and the fact that I got them because they are naturally calm and quiet in the house and uninterested in strangers. And people would invariably tell me they didn’t even know that was an option.

I get it, having to train engagement, do preventative resource guarding and reactivity exercises, and acceptance of restraint can easily be considered hard. I don’t find it hard at all, and in fact, I find it very enjoyable. Thus, I don’t find my primary breed of choice a “hard” dog. The Taigan has been a challenge for me- I’ve had to work at an off switch (not typical of the breed), I’ve had to work on engagement from game, I’ve had to work on impulse control (a lot). Are Taigans a harder breed than Azawakh? For me, yes. For a number of my friends? Not at all.

If someone is a first time dog owner and comes to me having done the research and wanting an Azawakh, I will absolutely consider them. If they desire all the breed traits of my breed, why wouldn’t they be a good fit. Telling them- no, you need to go get a Whippet or Greyhound first before I’ll consider you isn’t helping anyone. A Whippet isn’t a “starter sighthound”. They are a versatile, driven breed that trains differently than an Azawakh. Owning an Whippet or Greyhound is not a prerequisite to owning an Azawakh because they are different breeds that work differently.

I will often have people come to me with twenty years of sighthound experience and to me, that alone is not a qualification because if they have no experience with guarding temperament, then in fact sighthound people tend to me more set in their expectations of other sighthound breeds than someone coming from a working breed. When people come to me from other sighthound breeds I love hearing: I love my X sighthound breed but I want one that will warn me when something sketchy is going on, I want one I feel safe traveling alone with. That’s a good fit for an Azawakh. They are seeking the breed because of the breed traits, not in spite of them.

Time and time again I have seen people online in the dog fancy state that breeds that don’t fit into a stereotypical heteronormative nuclear family need to either adapt or go extinct and I’m at the point where I don’t even hide my resentment for those sentiments. Firstly, that opinion falls squarely in line with the animal rights activists’ agenda – because they cannot imagine wanting a dog that doesn’t love everyone and everything then there is something “wrong” with the breed. Thus – conform or die. That’s literally a play taken from PETA and HSUS’s handbook.

Secondly, if all that existed in the world were friendly dogs, I would literally go dogless before sharing my life with a dog. I deserve in my downtime, to have a dog I genuinely enjoy and from an accessibility standpoint, to have a dog that doesn’t physically cause me sensory discomfort to live with. There is so much more diversity in the world than a white man and woman that gets married at 22, has two kids, and a Golden Retriever, especially considering an increasing segment of child-free individuals. There is nothing wrong with wanting kids and a Golden Retriever. Absolutely nothing. But there’s also nothing wrong with living alone with a Cane Corso. Or traveling the country with your dog in your van. It’s all valid. Stop erasing people. Stop erasing breeds of dog that suit said people. It’s privilege at its finest.

I would love to challenge everyone to stop labelling dogs as easy. Stop asking for breeds that are easy to train, when really you are looking for breeds that are easy to train for you. You are looking for breeds that are easy to live with for you. And your truth is very different from anyone else’s.

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