Author: Alex @ US Service Dog Certification
It’s been said that there are no bad dogs, only bad trainers.
Most poor behavior from dogs can be attributed to poor training or fear-based training. Like people, dogs are happiest when they know what to expect. When training is inconsistent, it can be confusing for your dog and you won’t get the behavior you want to see.
The best thing you can do for your dog is create consistency.
If you let your dog on the couch most days, but not when you have company over, that’s confusing. Your dog doesn’t understand why you are changing the rules so they don’t know what to do.
Likewise, if you let your dog bark all the time, but yell at them when they bark while you’re on a work call, they will have no idea why they are being yelled at.
Dogs never really know why you are yelling at all.
Some trainers believe that when you yell at them for barking, the dogs think you are just joining in, much like another dog would.
So, what can you do to train your dog?
The best thing to do is use positive reinforcement to show your dog the behavior you want to see.
Positive reinforcement involves rewarding good behavior. Instead of yelling or using shock collars or shaking penny bottles, you can build a better relationship with your dog simply by being positive.
Pat Miller is a dog trainer who basically wrote the book on positive dog training. Actually, she did write a book, and it’s essential reading for any dog owner.
Let’s look at one of her examples.
Say you are potty training a puppy. You might have heard that when your dog has an accident you should stick their nose is in it. This will show them not to do that again? Right? Nope.
If someone stuck your nose in an accident, would you let it happen again? No way! You would go somewhere else where they wouldn’t see it.
That’s just what your puppy will do. They won’t go pee in front of you because of how they were punished last time. This doesn’t teach them to go pee outside, it just teaches them not to do it in front of you. You don’t want to do that.
This will create the bad cycle of the dog going to the bathroom in secret places where they won’t get in trouble, like in other rooms or under the bed.
Instead, teach your dog where you do want them to go by taking them outside and rewarding them for the behavior you want to see.
Take your puppy outside every hour and after they’ve had a big drink and wait for them to use the bathroom. When they do, celebrate them! Tell them what an incredible dog they are and give them a little treat.
Hey that’s nice! A treat just for using the bathroom, that’s a good deal. Do this a few times and your dog will quickly learn that outside is the best place to go.
It’s like giving your dog an allowance. If someone gave you $5 for using a specific bathroom in your house, wouldn’t you make a habit of only using that bathroom?
Positive reinforcement is good for all kinds of training
Want your dog to sit quietly? Tell them to sit and stay and give them treats for sitting. They will sit as hard as they can for you.
Use positive reinforcement to break bad habits like stopping your dog from jumping on you
Want your dog to stop jumping when you come home? Instead of yelling, saying no, or pushing them off you, ignore the behavior you want to eliminate and reinforce the behavior you want to see more of.
When your dog jumps up, turn away from your dog. Don’t look at them, don’t speak to them, don’t even acknowledge them. When they sit down you can look at them and give them a little pat. Better yet, keep treats handy and give them a treat once they sit down.
The key to making this work is being consistent. If you give them attention when they jump on you, you’re rewarding the bad behavior, so you’re going to see more of it. But if you only give them attention when they sit calmly, then that’s the greeting you will get most often.
Use positive reinforcement to teach good manners
You can practice positive reinforcement all the time with your dog. Think of the simple commandment, “sit” as the equivalent of saying “please” and “thank you”.
When you are getting ready to take your dog out for a walk, ask them to sit before opening the door. This teaches them to wait for a command from you before getting the reward of going out.
You can do this every time you go through a doorway or start an activity. When you get to the dog park ask your dog to sit before taking off their leash. This teaches them that when they listen, they get to do the fun activity.
When you get home, ask them to sit before you take them inside. Always give them praise or a treat for doing to the task you asked them to do.
Using consistent positive reinforcement creates a powerful bond and deep understanding between you and your dog.
Positive reinforcement is even used when training a dog to be a service animal.
Depending on the task a dog is trained to perform, positive reinforcement was most likely used to teach them that task. For example, a service dog can be trained to detect an ingredient for people who have a life-threatening allergy.
During training, the trainer will reward the dog for identifying the meal that contains the allergen with a treat. Imagine trying to punish the dog for not identifying the right meal. The dog would have no idea what was happening.
But, for example, you train the dog that every time they bark at “lobster dish” then they get a treat, they will get very good at sniffing out meals that contain lobster. You just have to continue to reinforce the desired behavior with a treat.
Even if the dog is trained to help someone visually or hearing impaired, the dog will still need to complete good behavior training, like sitting quietly at a crosswalk, or not barking at other dogs on the street.
Positive reinforcement is used throughout these training processes.
Service animals especially need to be confident and have a strong connection with their handler, so fear-based training is never a good option.
Think about the relationship you want to have with your dog. Positive training will lead to an unspoken understanding between you both and heighten your dog’s sensitivity to your needs.
Positive training makes training sessions fun and easy for both of you.
Start small and see how quickly your dog becomes a model citizen when you praise over punish.