Most dog owners have been given advice from well-meaning friends when training becomes difficult:
If your dog poops in the house, rub her nose in it. That will teach her!
If your dog won’t come when called, go get her and smack the daylights out of her.
From a human point of view, this sort of advice might make some sense, but dogs are not humans. The use of force can confuse a species that learns best when cause and effect are closely related.
Using harsh methods will motivate your dog, but the motivation is out of fear. A dog under harsh training will be afraid to use her natural good sense for fear of being hurt for failing.
Motivation and initiative are powerful instincts that can be nurtured when you train a dog right or ruined when you use too much force.
The beauty of positive reinforcement is that it encourages your dog to use her innate intelligence and independent initiative. Your dog will not be afraid to fail while trying to work with you.
This ability to think independently is crucial when training complex commands such as the stay-sit or in taking commands from a trainer who is out of sight. Both of these commands demand that the dog be able to think through what is expected of her in order to comply in a nontraditional manner.
In the real world, the ability to manage complex decisions can have life or death consequences. While on a hike a few years back, my dog Buster and I ran across a stray dog that was acting strangely. I quickly called Buster to “come” and turned to go the other way. I was angered briefly when I saw that he had not complied, but that anger quickly turned to gratitude when I looked back to see what was going on.
Buster was firmly planted between me and the stray, which now was crouched and growling. Had Buster mindlessly come when I called him, I surely would have been bitten. A well-trained dog should be obedient yet able to think independently.
Your training can encourage this capacity for independent thought. If you catch your dog doing something right without the need of a command, reward her. You have just reinforced her for good independent thought. As Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.” You can’t force a dog to want to please you. You can, however, nurture that natural willingness into a full-blown partnership. Always reward her (within two seconds) for the “right” behaviors, and do not confuse her by rewarding for the “wrong” behaviors.
While building that motivated, independent thinker, don’t be afraid to let her work through things on her own. Learning takes place best when your dog is given the chance to make the decision to obey on her own. If you have asked your dog to stay, give her the opportunity to succeed or fail without constant repetition of the command. Give her the command once and expect her to obey it. If she fails, correct her and give her another opportunity to learn the correct meaning of “stay.” Constant repetition just teaches your dog to ignore the first few commands.
The most important benefit of positive reinforcement is that it builds secure, confident and obedient companion dogs. This combined with your dog’s natural intelligence is a winning formula.
Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at www.alphacanineacademy.com.