By Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB
Positive reinforcement training increases communication and strengthens the bond between you and your dog. It is also enjoyable for humans and canines alike. Begin training as soon as puppy comes home. If you have adopted an older dog, don’t be discouraged. Dogs of all ages continue to learn—and enjoy learning.
Training is not just for the obedience ring. Obedience titles can be fun but are certainly not necessary for a happy canine life. Dogs do need certain basic life skills that will help them live comfortably in the human world. The basics cues include loose leash walking, sitting, and lying down on cue, recall, and leave it. Puppy Start Right by Kenneth and Debbie Martin is a great source for puppy training.
Despite the proliferation of advice about training in the popular press, the research shows that positive reinforcement is not only the most humane approach to training but also the most effective. When rewards are involved, dogs want to learn. Punishment-based training reduces a dog’s enthusiasm and turns learning into an unpleasant chore.
Clicker training is an excellent way of training. This positive, reward-based method uses a novel sound (the click of a clicker) to mark the desired behavior.
Initially, the sound of the clicker is meaningless to your dog. Therefore, you first need to condition your pet to associate a “click” sound with a delicious food treat. Every time you click, your dog gets a treat. After four to five repetitions, most dogs understand that the click means something good is coming and you can proceed to the next step.
The next step is to click when your dog just happens to be engaged in desirable behavior, say sitting, and then reward with food. Once a dog has figured out what behavior makes the clicker go off, and after that the food has been given, they will offer that behavior more often. The last step is to use a command word (e.g. “Sit!”) and reward your dog when it responds after the command word is used.
For more information about clicker training, go to www.clickertraining.com.
What about problem behaviors? Don’t you have to reprimand and punish to stop unwanted behaviors? Not at all. When faced with problem behaviors, a few basic principles will start the ball rolling in the right direction.
Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil heads the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. She is a 2007 graduate of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
The research shows that positive reinforcement is not only the most humane approach to training but also the most effective.