Learn about the four pillars of our approach to dog training
Our dogs as partners and friends
Positive reinforcement training helps dogs learn to live safely and happily in our human world through methods that are kind and effective and based on the science of learning.
Positive reinforcement increases the bond you have with your dog because it is grounded in communication, cooperation and trust.
Positive reinforcement is mentally enriching as it requires dogs to think and problem solve. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement start to behave with purpose in order to earn a reward, such as a treat, or a real life reward such as permission to greet another dog.
Positive reinforcement is based on the principle that behaviours and actions that lead to pleasant and enjoyable consequences are more likely to be learned and repeated. That principle holds true for people as well as dogs, in fact for all species!
Here are some important aspects of positive reinforcement: Communicate clearly! If your dog does not do what you ask, one of the main reasons is that she probably doesn't understand what you want. One of the greatest gifts we can give our dogs is clear communication. So often we are not clear in our requests and dogs get labeled stubborn when in fact they are simply confused.
One way to communicate clearly is to use a "marker" that tells the dog when he has done something right. A marker is commonly a sound, such as a clicker or a word, such as "yes" or "good". But a marker could also be a gesture, a flash of light, or even a sensation, such as vibration, which can be helpful for dogs with hearing and/or sight impairment.
Trial and success, not trial and error! Setting our dogs up for success is a hallmark of positive reinforcement training. We make it easy for our dogs to do the right thing and harder for them to do the wrong thing. For example, if your dog is constantly picking up and chewing on something he shouldn't, remove it from his reach until you teach a solid “leave it”. Prevention and management is the first tier of training.
We also set our dogs up for success by starting easy and only making it harder gradually. For example, we first teach a new behaviour in a low-distraction area in order to build a strong foundation. As your dog becomes adept at the skill, you gradually make your learning sessions more challenging by adding in distractions. You can also start to work on increasing distance and duration, one criterion at a time.
In short, start easy, and gradually make things harder. Start inside your house, then move to your yard, then to a public place with fewer distractions, and then a public place with more distractions.
You can also change other things about the learning session including what you are doing when you ask for the behaviour. For example, will your dog sit if you have your back turned to him? If you are lying down, instead of standing in front of him? Help your dog to generalize the cues he learns through the "proofing" process. Watch these trainers "proof" their golden retrievers' sit cue!
Motivation matters! Another common reason a dog doesn't do what you ask is because she is not motivated enough to do it. The consequence for doing what you ask is not sufficiently motivating. It might even be punishing. For example, if the only time you ask your dog to come is when the outing is over and it's time to go home, she might not want to do it because coming when you call always signals the fun is over. Make sure that your dog is sufficiently motivated to do what you want by making it rewarding for her!
Reinforce the behaviours you want - generously! The rewards you use in training must be reinforcing for your dog. They must be things your dog likes and will happily work for. Rewards can include treats or real life rewards, such as the opportunity to play ball, or to sniff something particularly interesting on a walk. You need to repeatedly reward/reinforce the behaviours that you want so that they will keep happening.
Your dog's needs come before training. Dogs cannot learn if they are stressed, anxious, or frustrated. And they will not enjoy working with you if they are not comfortable. It's important to ensure your dog is happy and ready to work before you begin training.
Positive isn't permissive! Positive reinforcement does not mean anything goes. It doesn't mean we just ignore unwanted behaviour. It does mean we focus on teaching the dog what we want them to do instead. So often, we leave dogs in limbo. We tell them not to do something but we don't tell them what they can do to earn the reinforcement.
We also need to set rules and boundaries for our dogs to help them live happily and safely in our world. If you are not consistent with the way that you apply the rules and reinforcement, your dog has no way to know how to be right.
When dogs are taught what to do and how to behave, and when they are rewarded for their efforts and made to feel safe, their confidence builds and learning can take place. That's positive reinforcement! Watch this video by Dr. Susan Friedman about creating a trust account with your dog.
Having some control over your own environment is a primary need for all species. Giving our dogs choice, control, and predictability whenever we can leads to more cooperative and trusting relationships.
Empowerment is especially important when the dog is experiencing something unpleasant such as veterinary or husbandry procedures. Through "cooperative care" training, dogs become active, willing participants in their own care.
When we go to the dentist, the dentist tells us to raise our hand if at any time we want the procedure to stop.Having a sense of control makes an unpleasant experience easier. Research shows that the benefit of having a sense of control over unpleasant events applies to all animals, not just humans. Cooperative care is quite common in zoos where large or potentially dangerous animals cannot otherwise be safely handled without physical or chemical restraint.Watch this video of cooperative care with a giraffe.
One of the most important aspects of teaching cooperative care is that the animal is allowed to “say no.” Using anon-aggressive, safe behavior the animal can indicate that they want the procedure to stop. This greatly increases safety and reduces the risk of injury for both dogs and handlers.
We can use many behaviours as the foundation for cooperative care. When I brush my senior dog TT, his "more please" or consent signal is to lie down with his head resting on the floor. I brush him while he is in this position and when he lifts his head, he is telling me he would like to stop, a request that I respect. Because I respect his request, he is more likely to cooperate in future. It can be as simple as that.
Teaching a dog to target is a useful foundation for cooperative care. For example, the "chin rest" is often used as a consent signal for cooperative care. In a chin rest, the dog rests his chin on your hand, on your lap, or on an object such as a pillow. The chin rest helps to keep the dog still and we teach the dog that if they lift their head at any time during the procedure, the procedure will stop.
Here are other ways to add empowerment to your dog's life:
Let your dog do what he can for himself. Teach your dog to target his head through his harness, rather than force it on him. Teach your dog to jump onto the couch, rather than lift her up every time. Any time your dog can do something for himself, let him do it.
Provide opportunities for your dog to employ her natural abilities. Use the strategies and ideas listed under "Enrichment" to offer your dog the power and delight of searching for his own food. Turn as many activities as you can into brain activities and offer your dog the gift of mental stimulation.
Honour two way communication! When our dogs "misbehave" it's usually because they are trying to meet a need. As Chirag Patel says, "Listen to your dog's whisper so he doesn't have to shout." When we give our dogs a voice, and listen to what they say, problem behaviours may disappear. For example, wait for your dog to request petting. Pet your dog for no more than five seconds and then remove your hands. stop and watch what she does. Does she initiate more contact? Or does she indicate she really doesn't want to be petted anymore? Listen to your dog's answer and honour it!
Dogsneed both mental and physical exercise to be balanced and healthy. Use some of your dog's meals to provide mental stimulation. Research shows that dogs prefer to work for their food rather than have it provided for free. Ditch the bowl! Food puzzles and exploration of the natural world will enhance your dog's wellbeing and improve his brain power. There are many commercial food puzzles available and you can make your own. Here are a few ideas:
Let your puppy knock around a plastic milk jug with kibble in it. This will also help with sound sensitivity because your dog is the one making the sound happen.
Scatter food in the yard, on the kitchen floor, or in containers and let your dog hunt!
Get a snuffle mat and sprinkle very small pieces of food. Very small. You can overcook some bacon to a crunchy-crisp texture, then crumble it in your hands before spreading it through the mat.
Hide some food in a box and hide that box along with several empty boxes around your house. Release your dog to find the box with the food in it.
Stuff the Ho-lee Roller Ball available in pet stores with treats rolled up in facecloths, as long as your dog is not a facecloth swallower!
There are hundreds more ideas for creating interesting and fun food puzzles for your dog! Use your imagination and challenge your dog. Make it interesting and change what you do week by week so that your dog continues to be challenged and use his brain!
Enrichment doesn't have to be food. There are many other ways to provide enrichment and mental stimulation to your dog. Here are a few ideas:
Off leash walks: Nothing beats an off leash walk where your dog is free to run and explore use her amazing nose to discover the world of scent. The more you can make these walks interactive, too, the more you will build a bond with your dog.
Personal play: One of the reasons we love dogs so much is that they love to play, as do we. Playing with your dog is a wonderful form of enrichment. There are many ways to use food and toys to play with your dogs but you also don't need them. You can get on the floor and just play with your dog. Invite her to play with your open hands. Follow her lead. Experiment. See what is fun for both of you.
Learning and training: Training doesn't have to be something you do formally with your dog. Just grab your clicker and treats and start clicking your dog for offering you behaviours. Get a cardboard box and click and treat her for interacting with the box! You'll be amazed at how much fun you and your dog can have.
Our dogs as partners and friends
We take dogs for granted but think about how special our relationship is with these wonderful creatures. Another species, with a totally different culture, chooses to live with us so closely.
When you go for a walk your dog follows you. When you leave the house, your dog waits for you to come home and greets you joyfully when you do. When you are sad or upset, chances are your dog sits or lies quietly beside you or rests his head on your knee. When you go to sleep at night, your dog is nearby, sleeping when you sleep and waking when you wake. Day after day, your dog is there, choosing to be with you, offering love and companionship and loyalty.
The relationship we have with our dogs is at the heart of our training. You and your dog work together to find ways to meet both of your needs. And in the process, you have fun and enjoy your time together. If training isn’t fun, and you and your dog don’t enjoy it, it’s best to change the way you train.
Dogs do what we ask because we train them but that is not the only reason. They do our bidding because it is their habit to cooperate with us. They want to live in harmony with us. They are our partners and the best training is a partnership, not a power contest or a struggle for dominance. Train your dog as a partner and treat her as a friend. That's the kind of relationship that will lead to success.
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