For most people, “positive” is a popular term used to describe a more kind and gentle way to train a dog. For others, it’s an impractical word that is often perceived to be synonymous with “ineffective,” or “new-age, hippie dog-trainers” (as a former veterinarian once told me).
Some dog owners think training their dog with treats, or other motivators, such as toys and praise, will simply create a dog who will listen ONLY when food, or that specific reward is present (we’ll have more on this later). Some think that clicker training is a worthless gimmick, despite its early uses by expert animal behaviorists to train dolphins and other marine mammals. You can’t put a training collar on a dolphin!
It’s kind of ironic for there to be so much negativity about such a feel-good word, don’t you think?
There is a familiar look that I see whenever I meet and speak with potential clients who don’t believe in, or understand positive reinforcement methods. It is the look of a skeptic or critic, maybe from a person who feels that something is wrong with their dog, and it is beyond “fixing” with positive methods. How could someone ever “fix” a dog without getting rough, without the use of shock collars (for scientific research on this go here), and a demonstration of “dominance”? You might ask, “How could treats and praise create a controlled and obedient dog?”
A part of me gets a little stressed out when I hear these misconceptions, but another part of me lights up inside; I know there’s an opportunity to educate and demonstrate what positive training is really all about.
The Real Deal with Positive-Reinforcement (R+)
When I first meet with potential clients, I always make an effort to explain my methods in the most simple and concise manner. In a nutshell, I call it “rewards-based training, free from intimidation or physical force.”
- LEARNING takes place first; the dog must be taught how to do specific behaviors/skills from the start, without being physically punished or intimidated.
- PRACTICING your dog’s new skills should continue until the dog proves that s/he understands what to do for each individual verbal cue and hand signal with at least 90% accuracy before going on to the next step.
- PROOFING – the most important step – Once the dog is reliable in their response to a specific behavior, they must be “proofed” in a variety of other environments (outside of your home). This is the stage where steadily adding distance, duration and distractions will make your dog’s training skills even stronger.
- MAINTAINING your dog’s skills is the easiest step: Simply by integrating super short training sessions (1-2 minutes) into your day. This is where your dog’s training becomes a part of his or her everyday lifestyle, so that you can say “thank you” whenever you hear a compliment about your wonderfully behaved dog!
Positive is NOT Permissive…
Finally, what to do when your dog is misbehaving, or ignoring your requests? I’m sure by now, you know that “positive” also means “free from pain,” but it does not mean free from punishment and this includes verbal corrections with an even, stable tone of voice. However, this does not include shouting, or screaming at your dog.
Punishment and corrections do exist in the world of positive training, maybe just not how you’d imagine them. The message we want to send to our dogs is that there are always consequences to their behavior, whether it is in their favor or not.
Removal or Withholding of Rewards: Treats, toys, leashes, petting, attention from you, etc–anything that they perceive as a reward is promptly taken away from them when their behavior is undesirable. These are also effective in the form of short breaks and time-outs, when timing is properly used.
“Nothing In Life Is Free”: If your dog doesn’t comply with your verbal cues and/or hand signals, he does not earn his bowl of kibble on the floor, his leash being put on for a walk, or that VIP parking spot on your lap. Period! If your dog must work to earn his keep and privileges, too, then he will soon understand the value of your requests and respond accordingly, each and every time!
If you’re already training positively, we’d like to hear about it! Let us know why it’s working for you and what your greatest training accomplishment has been so far. We hope this will inspire many more dog owners and professionals to reconsider the powerful science of positive dog training. We will continue to write blog posts pertaining to this topic in the hope that we may help educate others.