The Case for Positive Training: Best Behavior and Relationships
Confused about training methods? It’s no wonder, given the vast differences between the ways we grew up with; what we have seen on TV (“the dog whisperer” vs. Victoria Stilwell); and what we’ve learned in obedience classes, from books, and from amateurs and experts on the Internet, not to mention friends and relatives.
In case you think all trainers are on the same page, be aware that there is a huge divide between those who practice positive-reinforcement and those who are still training the military way, with commands, reprimands, and compulsion. Some call their method balanced, which I believe means they are basically old-school but will use treats.
Old-school trainers were taught to compel obedience with force and intimidation. Decades ago, that was the only way—and more dogs were bred to do a job than to be a pet. When the radically different positive philosophy and method was introduced, around 1990, a sea change occurred. Hundreds, then more and more “crossed over.” It’s very easy to be convinced when you see how joyfully and quickly dogs (all species, actually) respond to positive training—and when you experience the amazing relationship benefits. That doesn’t happen when a dog is taught to obey . . . or else.
Thankfully, the punishment-based method has been dying out, yet plenty of trainers, breeders, and vets continue to give outdated advice to owners about being “alpha,” and making your dog behave with sometimes harsh techniques and tools. “Whatever works” seems to be their attitude. And “he can’t get away with THAT.”
Over the past 25 years or so, the modern method and ethical standards have greatly evolved and become widespread, thanks to the dedicated expert trainers, behaviorists, ethologists, and organizations that educate the rest of us. They share their deep knowledge, experience, and skills through seminars, workshops, webinars, books, articles, blogs, DVDs, and more. These are available to everyone!
Our progress is based on scientific studies that help us understand more than we ever knew before about how dogs think, feel, learn, problem solve, and perceive their world. Science has also dispelled the old myths about why dogs do what they do, such as the long-debunked theory of dominance.
Food Is a Means to an End: Reinforcing Good Choices
Bottom line: Positive-reinforcement training is not all about food, as some may believe. It’s really about providing motivation and being very clear. As important as rewards are, so are the use of a marker (clicker) and proper mechanics, techniques, and timing. Together, positive trainers and owners are engaging dogs’ minds and quickly teaching new skills and concepts, how to accept veterinary treatments, how to provide services to the disabled, and much more.
Positive training is—or should be—primarily about teaching dogs to make good choices. Giving a sense of empowerment and control produces a behaviorally healthy animal, preventing or resolving many behavior issues. And the side effects are more confidence (i.e., less fear), trust, and closer bonds.
Educated professional trainers put a high value on the relationship—to create a partnership, not to be master or “alpha.” We focus on getting desirable behaviors, to avoid or replace undesirable ones. We use food, toys, play, and real-life rewards—whatever the individual is willing to work for.
The aim is to get your dog’s willing attention and cooperation. Here are the main principles, as I see them.
- Behaviors that are reinforced are strengthened. To install good habits, notice and reinforce all behaviors you like, whether offered or asked for.
- Manage (change) the environment to make the right choices easy and the wrong ones difficult.
- To stop a behavior, teach your dog what to do instead. Example: keep four feet on the floor instead of jumping up.
- Techniques to get behavior started include capturing, luring, and shaping.
- Get the behavior first, before attaching the cue. That’s how to make the connection clear.
- Using your body language and hand signals is easier for dogs to understand than words.
- Help your dog to always be successful at training. Begin with no distractions, short distance, and short duration. Change locations and other variables to generalize cues.
- If your dog doesn’t respond to a known cue, she may be confused or distracted.
- Prevent future fears in puppies by socializing or familiarizing before the end of puppy vaccinations. Don’t just expose to new things but ensure that all encounters with novelty are perceived as safe and pleasant.
- Make sure you are meeting the dog’s needs for proper medical care, food, water, shelter, proper nutrition, companionship, exercise, and mental stimulation.
- Learn how to read canine body language, especially signals for stress, so you can respond before things escalate.
- Give your dog safe choices. Your dog gets to decide what’s scary, but this perception can be changed if done correctly.
- Medical issues, fears, and anxiety are the source of many behavior problems. Consult a vet to rule out the first cause, then consult a certified trainer or behavior consultant.
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2016