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What is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?


"You don't know what you don't know" is a common phrase that represents dog training very well.


When people bring a dog home, there are often many expectations about how the dog should behave, and most people understand there will be a need for some training. In most cases, what decisions are made next by the owners will be critical in how the dog develops in its new world. Before becoming a dog trainer, when I began looking into how to train my own dog, I had no idea what the terms positive reinforcement training, balanced training, traditional training, punitive methods, assertive tools, and clicker training meant. I had no idea who to pay attention to in the worlds of television and internet dog trainers. I read books by various dog training and canine behavior experts. I realized many in the industry had their own "recipes" for training dogs and were often vehemently at odds with one another.


One of the first questions I needed to answer was, "What does my dog need to learn?" After this came the next question, "Who should train my dog?"


When a dog comes into our lives, generally, an owner wants the dog to understand what behaviors are acceptable and enjoyed by the humans in the household. Everyone wants the relationship with their dog they see in television ads (that's why dogs are in television ads) for products ranging from medicines to bug spray. Having a good dog in the picture makes life perfect. Of course, I agree.


Here is the twist! Those people in the commercials are actors. The dog doesn't belong to them. LOL! In most commercials with dogs, an observant eye will notice the dog is often looking past the camera to its actual owner, the person who is off-camera communicating the behavior the dog is to perform during the pretend family commercial. This person is the one who has an authentic relationship with the dog, the one who has earned the dog's trust and developed effective training and communication. Every dog needs this type of person, and, in most cases, the best person for the job is one who wants a relationship with the dog in the first place.


Nothing is more rewarding to me as a dog trainer than seeing the smiles on people's faces when they ask their dogs to sit or lie down, and the dogs eagerly do it for them. The moment is akin to a child taking their first step or saying their first word. An owner who understands how to communicate with their dog will have the dog they want. Although my job title is dog trainer, I am a people trainer. I do not want to see just a trained dog, but I want to see a partnership. In Western societies, people are often impatient. We tend to want things quick and easy and are willing to pay for it most of the time. The truth is money can't buy you love and respect. In our beginner classes, we ask the humans to spend a total of 15 minutes per day working on their dog's basic skills, the foundations for learning communication skills. That's often all that is needed to set the partnership in motion. If someone cannot give their dog 15 minutes a day, they probably should consider getting a houseplant instead. A dog is a living, breathing, emotional being that needs more than just food and water.


Considering your relationship with your pet dog, understanding and respect is a two-way street. I have two fundamentals I hope to get across to students in my classes. First, the dog should want to do the desired behavior because it is rewarded for doing it and not made or forced to do it. Any behavior the dog finds rewarding will be repeated. And secondly, I want students to get in the habit of giving their dog a more rewarding behavior option than the one we see as bad behavior. In other words, if you ask your dog to stop doing something, also give them a rewarding alternative. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but patience and consistency will see you through.


As mentioned earlier, there are many types of dog training methods. Traditionally, dog training has been done in a way to force the dog to follow commands. Sometimes called the Alpha Dog Method or dominance training, this type of training involves showing the dog who is the boss or "pack leader." According to scientific studies, as brilliant as dogs can be, most dogs exhibit the same understanding of the world as a human toddler. Granting them the ability to conceptualize a strategy to take over the house is a bit much. The alpha dog/dominance approach is based on a faulty study of captive wolves, failing to recognize that wolves in the wild behaved differently than in captivity. Also, the study did not account for the impact of thousands of years of domestication on dog behavior. One analysis found that wolves and dogs share 71 out of 90 behavioral patterns, for example, growling and baring teeth. Still, these behaviors may be displayed for different reasons between the two species.


Balanced dog training, or crossover training, is another method that incorporates both positive rewards and negative corrections. Many balanced trainers believe that positive, reward-based training is not always sufficient and corrections and aversive tools, such as e-collars and prong collars, are also needed. Although legal in the U.S., some countries recently banned shock collars and prong collars.


In operant conditioning, there are essentially four areas or quadrants: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. In this case, positive means something is added, and negative means something is taken away, not necessarily good or bad.



As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, as are all the trainers at Awesome Dog Academy, the focus is on the quadrant of operant conditioning that involves adding something such as a treat, toy, or other things the dog wants to increase or reinforce behavior. Dogs tend to do things, even things humans don't like, because they find them rewarding. Why do dogs counter-surf? Because they find food. Yelling, "Get down!" probably won't help. Kneeing them in the chest might work if you're standing there, but if you walk away ... However, consistently giving the dog an alternative, perhaps a chew stick or feeding them, while preparing food may leave them less inclined to repeat the unwanted behavior.


Positive reinforcement helps dogs learn self-control, develop trust with their humans, and develop self-confidence. There is thought for a dog's emotional state, learning skills, and needs and wants.


One problem positive reinforcement trainers have with traditional methods, however, is that traditional methods often work. To make a dog do something can be pretty rewarding for the handler, but often at the expense of the dog's emotional well-being. That said, some dogs are resilient types that may never show the impact of the training they've endured. Yet, others may become more unstable or unpredictable as they age.


The brains of dogs and young children are very similar. For thought, an American Psychological Association resolution cites evidence that physical punishment of a child can result in aggression later in life, anti-social behavior, and reduced relationship quality with parents.


Let's think about how a dog may be affected. Physical discipline of a dog can break its trust of the owner and humans throughout the dog's life. Insecurities can form about whether or not or when the next painful punishment will happen. The dog may exhibit undesirable behaviors based on fear. The dog may become overly aggressive, or exhibit learned helplessness, shutting down. Understand the effect of the punishment, whatever tool is used, is from the individual dog's perspective. A human may not think of a prong collar or even yelling at a dog as a big deal, but the dog may think of it as a very big deal. Some dogs may do well around an electric fence, while others may be terrified to go out in the yard.


Many traditional and balanced trainers will say positive reinforcement training is not enough for some dogs, dogs with high drive. "It may be good for puppies, but it's not for working dogs." Positive training is often thought of as unreliable. "I don't want to walk around with treats in my pocket all of the time. What happens when the treats are gone?"



In my experience as an owner of a high-drive dog and a trainer of many, the higher the drive, the more straightforward positive reinforcement becomes. Finding out what reinforcement motivates your dog the most becomes the tool for getting them to do the most difficult tasks. For example, my border collie loves balls. By playing fetch with two balls, she learned "drop it." She would drop the one in her mouth, to which I added a verbal cue, and I would throw the other ball. After many repetitions to reinforce this behavior, the cue became so strong the ball was no longer necessary. Recently, she approached our back porch with a baby rabbit dangling from her mouth by a leg. What a prize she had. I said, "Drop it," and she never hesitated. The rabbit was unharmed and placed away from the house where I had seen its mother.


Positive reinforcement is gaining ground as a relatively new idea in dog training. Old ways are hard to change, but even some police departments and herding circles incorporate this approach in training dogs.


No one wants to be made to do anything. The most passionate people to have on your team are the ones who believe in or buy into a task and do what it takes to see it through. The process itself becomes part of the reward. Teamwork makes things happen. No one likes doing all the work, especially being made to work, to satisfy a boss who will ultimately take all the rewards.


I want to think my dogs think the same way.



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