The Power of Positive Thinking - what is positive reinforcement in dog training?

Dog training – a subject likely to stimulate heated discussions in any gathering of dog owners as to the best or most effective approach.

Now I don’t profess to be an expert by any means and certainly have no formal training in dog education, but over the years I’ve seen a lot of dogs and owners, so this is just based on observation and personal experience. Inevitably, in a short article, there are a lot of generalisations and yes, I understand that there are always exceptions.

So this is not aimed at experts, but even those who have owned dogs for many years can benefit from a refresh. I include myself in that as sometimes when they do something  really irritating or dangerous out of the blue, it can be soo frustrating.

You can never start the education of your dog too early and an older dog can learn new ‘tricks’ when presented in the right way. Don’t wait until they are a boisterous ‘teenager’ before you get them walking on a loose lead – whether it is at heel is up to you. Personally, I think that having the dog at heel gives you closer control in tricky situations, such as a busy street. I find that on the lead means at heal is a clearer signal for your dog too. No questions about am I or am I not meant to be at heel.

Keep it positive - dogs want to get it right

The key message is, keep it positive. The idea is for your dog to want to do what is being asked of it, not to be forced or feel it has to or suffer unpleasant consequences. And in broad terms, dogs do want to please. They are pack animals so they want to be with their pack where they feel safe and supported. Dog are not actively naughty or bad. Those are just our labels for actions that do not suit us at a particular moment. Their reactions to situations they find themselves in may not be exactly how we’d like every time, but they are individuals and we may not be sensitive to the vibes they are receiving from other dogs or people.

Two dogs underging trainin n a field, one receiving a treat - Big Dog Bed Company

 So, keeping it positive, what does that actually mean? Basically, if the dog is doing something judged to be wrong, telling them off is not going to achieve anything. In life, we all prefer reward and praise for doing something, whether at work, at home or in social situations.

It is all about being incentivised. And, to be honest, how many situations are there where a given behaviour is deemed to be acceptable, but exactly the same behaviour in a different situation is not acceptable? To say that a dog ‘should know better’ is just silly. A dog has to understand what is wanted and it is up to us to create the conditions that enable them to understand. If you have ever been to a dog training class, you will know the mildly embarrassing situation where the instructor demonstrates what is wanted with your dog, and your dog gets it absolutely right. What is that telling you? That it is you that is getting it wrong and when there is understanding, there is obedience.

Positive means rewarding your dog for doing what has been asked of it. That reward may be a treat, a game or just your time and praise. Different dogs repond to different rewards and what it responds to may change in different situations. It is actually good to mix up the rewards you give as sometimes it's not possible to throw a toy or maybe you don't have a treat with you (unlikely I know if your dog is with you, I know!). Some dogs will be happy with a piece of their normal kibble, while others will want something more exotic before they are motivated, such as chicken, cheese or dried liver.These are often termed high value treats - it's got nothing to do with what they cost, it how much the dog values that reward. Some dogs are not incentivised by food rewards at all and a toy may be what gets them excited and engaged. You need to experiment. There can be a certain amount of trial and error abut finding what motivates your particular dog.

Your dog needs to understand what's wanted to get it right

If your dog is pulling, yanking on the lead – tempting though it can be - will always meet with resistance – action and reaction – so it is counterproductive. If someone pulls at you, your reflex is to resist that pull. It is the same in your dog. If your dog pulls, stand still until the tension comes out of the lead, then carry on. When the tension comes off the lead, give the dog a treat, or praise if they are not treat oriented so they associate a slack lead with positive feedback from you. Try using the TTouch technique of lead stroking to reduce and ultimately eliminate leading pulling. Look it up – would take too long to describe here.

Ignore unacceptable behaviour - turn and/or walk away – do not scold. If your dog is seeking attention, even a scold is better that being ignored. When they stop doing whatever was unacceptable, praise and reward them. Reinforce the good and ignore the ‘bad’ or more accurately, the unacceptable.

Be consistent. Don’t let them do something because they are with doggie people and it ‘doesn’t matter’ if you don’t want them to do the same thing when in a less dog friendly situation.

Negative feedback does not work with a dog

Never, ever tell your dog off when they return to you, no matter how long they took to respond to your call and no matter how worried, frustrated, late for an appointment or whatever, you were.  Reward and praise, regardless. Just think how confusing it is. I’ve come back – I’m scolded. Did I do wrong in coming back? And don’t make the recall just about going back on the lead, or the end of the walk. Think of the association that creates in the dog’s mind – to go back means the end of fun. Call them back, make a fuss, give them a treat and then off they go again. Recall is as much about reconnecting with your dog and keeping them aware of where you are, as it is about control. If your dog swings by, say hi and possibly engage in play or with a treat, even if you didn’t call them. Keep all associations with you as positive as you can. I actually think there’d be fewer dogs lost when out on walks if they were called back for a treat more frequently. Returning to check on their owners is a behaviour that can be ‘automated’ in a dog if you make a call back and treat a frequent thing from an early age. It becomes a learned behaviour that they do without even thinking about it.

Bulldog puppy being told off

Recall is an easy thing to teach a pup and should start in the house, then in the garden and then as soon as they are out and about. Let them off the lead, where it is safe to do so. A puppy will want to stay close to you, even as it explores the world, because you mean security. Don’t wait until they are older and bolder before you let them off as then the freedom is too much of a distraction and you have a bigger job to do.

Engage with your dog, don't ignore them

Finally, and just as importantly, engage with your dog on the walk. Keep your nose out of your phone. Be aware of what is happening about you – be proactive. Intercede early, and preferably before things going awry. Joggers and cyclists are not ‘fair game’ as I have heard them described. You don’t want your dog injured or to cause an injury. Stopping a dog giving chase is easy if you are proactive. Call them back, get them to sit and give a treat, treat again as the bike goes by and until the cyclist is well away. Keep the dog’s attention on you, not gazing after the ‘target’ as they may still give chase once you release them from the sit. Take the same approach if your dog is nervous of, or has a tendency to give chase to cars. You will soon have a dog that comes back of its own accord when it sees joggers, cyclists, horse riders or whatever. Do not wait until your dog has done something ‘wrong’ and then tell it off. Help it know what is right in advance with a positive and engaged approach.

And in case you are wondering, no, I don’t always practice what I am preaching, but I try to remember this mantra and feel irritated with myself when I react rather than think. Being positive will always give a better outcome.

If you are having difficulties teaching your dog they behaviour you would like from it, reach out for support. There are many local trainers available these days. Local dog social media groups can be good places to seek recommendations.

Tell us about your experiences with teaching your dog how to behave.

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