The dog training world has evolved so much since our grandparents’ days of “whacking the dog on the nose with the newspaper!” As humans’ understanding of dog behavior and the general psychology of learning have progressed, so has the development of dog training techniques. Today the commonly accepted and preferred method of training is based on scientific training methods, or operant and classical conditioning – what some dog owners call positive training, or humane hierarchy model training.
Let’s jump back in time to 1891, when Ivan Pavlov first discovered an inkling of classical conditioning. He began to realize that he could induce a behavior in a dog by providing a stimulus that was associated with something positive, ie: food. This was the first groundbreaking discovery that led to today’s understanding of various training models. When happy things (rewards, praise, appreciation, verbal encouragement, or a click and a treat) are paired with certain stimuli, that specific stimulus elicits the desired result.
Leaping forward to today, animal trainers have learned how to apply classical and operant conditioning methods to all forms of training (p.s., yes, these also work on people). Take teaching a dog how to sit for example: people have realized that when they pair the sitting action with something positive (treat, toy, praise), they can elicit that action much more quickly. Now, add in another level: human pairs the action of sitting with a treat, and also the word “sit.” Over time, the human can slowly take away the treats, and the dog will still sit. Why does this happen? The pup has paired sitting with happy things in the past, and will continue to do so because it is conditioned that way.
This is the basic premise for reward-based training. The other side of the training coin is negative reinforcement. This not actually the “whacking the dog with the newspaper method” – negative reinforcement can be ignoring bad behavior, or a verbal correction, a short growl from the human, or other non-physical means of correction. The important thing is that dogs want to have FUN through work and play, and so when corrections are paired with rewards for performing a preferred task or behavior, that positive reinforcement has a much higher retention rate than negative. What constitutes “fun” for each dog is personal and different… some dogs like to seek and hunt for things, some dogs love physical play and agility, some dogs like swimming or retrieving, some dogs hang on every word of praise as their reward while other dogs prefer toys or “prey” as a reward. It’s important for us humans to understand what rewards our dog prefers, as well as how to choose from all the available positive reinforcement techniques to motivate the dog faster toward your obedience and behavioral goals.
For example, say that every time you ate candy, you were issued a fine of $100. This would probably prevent you from eating candy…for a very short while in the beginning! Then over time, you’d become resentful of this consistent negative reinforcement, and would probably just switch to a different, yet equally satisfying sweet. However, if you were to reward yourself for abstaining from all sweet treats with another fun activity that you really enjoy, like going to the movies or meeting up for dinner with friends, you are much more likely to stick to that routine long-term. However, as much as you love movies, I can’t stand them – the noise and the crowd drive me crazy and I’d much prefer a reward of a trip to the library to check out several books! The point is, positive reinforcement keeps you on track! And the choice of which positive reinforcements to use, personalized to the dog’s temperament, help a dog focus and stay motivated through training.
Now look at that in dog terms: say your dog has a bad habit of pulling on the leash, and every time they pulled, they choked themselves on their collar. Chances are, they will not actually associate the choking with the pulling, and will a) continue to pull or b) begin to dread going for walks. However, if you were to introduce something positive (a toy or praise or a treat) every time your dog stopped pulling, they are much more likely to associate those two things, and walks will be come pleasant for all!
While humane and conditioning training may take more work, consistency, and repetition over time to instill good habits and behaviors in your dog, the retention rate makes it incredibly worth it instead of taking shortcuts that will not lead to a well behaved pup. Good training is for life, and involves daily communication and practice to ensure a lifetime of good habits!
All you cat owners out there: never fear, you can use humane training too! The trick is to align your thinking to the behavior you want to change. Take the unwanted behavior (ex: jumping on the counter), replace it with a wanted behavior (staying on the floor), and add a reward (tasty treat on floor). With consistency and repetition, these behaviors will be turned around before you know it!
If you have some pupper behaviors you want to work on, check out our trainer, Alex! He is offering a variety of private consulting and group obedience classes ranging from basic puppy 101 to Canine Good Citizen training. Reach out to us and ask how training can work for you and your dog!