Dog obedience training shouldn’t be seen as a way for a tyrannical human to bend their pet to their will. It’s actually an important part of strengthening the bond between dog and owner, and it will make for a happier dog overall as their new found self-control means that their guardians won’t feel they have to use rigid control to get the behavior they want out of their dogs.
Effective dog obedience training may even save your dog’s life one day, as you will be better equipped to prevent them putting themselves at risk. It also makes it a pleasure to take your dog out and about with, as you know they will sleep peacefully while you finish a leisurely meal at a pet-friendly restaurant.
As such, dog training is considered an essential part of raising a dog, but which dog training methods should you use? There are quite a few different theories on how to get desirable behavior from your dog, and these methods are not equally effective, nor are all of them humane. Amongst all the options, positive reinforcement training stands tall, as it is based on sound scientific learning theory. It is fast, effective and fun.
Let’s take a closer look.
What is positive reinforcement training?
There’s the age-old question of which is more effective: The carrot or the stick? Positive reinforcement trainers believe it’s the carrot. In other words, rewarding your dog each time he behaves in a way your want will make him more likely to repeat that action in the future. The more a behavior is rewarded, the more it will be offered, as offering the behavior results in something good. All dogs do what works for them, so if you make sitting or not barking at horses work for them, that is what they will do – it will become part of their default behavior repertoire.
With other dog training methods, particularly traditional training and anything based on dominance or pack leadership, the focus is on punishing dogs for incorrect behavior or punishing until the correct behavior is eventually offered. For example, the alpha dog training method forces obedience through aggressive dominance, such as ‘alpha rolling’, physically forcing them to release items and even hanging or shaking dogs.
These methods are cruel and can cause behavioral problems to develop. In 2009, the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine conducted a survey on confrontational and non-confrontational training methods used on dogs who already showed undesired behavior. It found that dogs who had been trained with confrontation methods were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than dogs trained with non-confrontational methods.
Furthermore, a paper published by researchers at the University of Bristol in 2004 found that punishment-based training methods were less likely to be effective than those based on positive reinforcement. Furthermore, dogs trained using punishment were fearful of their owners and developed fear responses to other dogs. This is because punishment in training occurs in the presence of other dogs, so other dogs become associated with punishment which generalises to fear.
According to the evidence, positive reinforcement dog training is not only more humane, but also more effective than other, punishment-based training methods.
How to use positive reinforcement
- Start training using hand signals only – no verbal cues. Once your dog has understood the behavior (for example, what exactly a sit is), then you can add a verbal cue. Putting in the verbal cue before your dog understands the behavior is like adding white noise – it’s meaningless.
- Use short, one word cues such as Sit, Stay, Off, etc, and use them consistently. Dogs respond better to a simple word, especially if that word is used repeatedly.
- Reward your dog with treats and praise when he gets the behavior right. You will phase out the treats over time, so don’t worry, you won’t need to always carry an endless supply. Note, however, that you should never do away with treats entirely. Rewarding correct behavior occasionally makes it stronger as it works on the gambling principle. Always verbally praise your dog for correct behavior. It keeps telling your dog that he’s on the right track and you think he’s awesome.
- Be careful not to accidentally reward behavior you don’t want to reinforce. For example, if you keep letting your dog outside every time he barks at a random noise, he will associate barking with being let outside (in other words, a reward).
- Some of the behaviors you want your dog to perform may be more challenging than others, or they could be inherently resistant towards certain behaviors. For example, Jack Russells are notoriously difficult to train the down . In this case, you can use a technique called “shaping”, which means you reward him for each step he takes towards performing the complete behavior. For example, if you’re working on the down, you can reward bending the head downward, then bending one elbow to the ground, then the other and then the full settle.
The great thing about positive reinforcement training is that the pain-free, pressure-free, yummy rewarding principles strengthen the bond between you and your pet. Another great thing is that after the initial training period is over and your dog understands the behavior you want, you can use life rewards instead of treats. Life rewards can be a game of fetch or chase, a swim and tummy rubs or ear scratches. This means you become part of your dog’s reward system, which makes interaction even more fun.