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Dog Training

Unrecognizable woman holding her dog's paw in training. Photo: iStock/Zbynek Pospisil
Unrecognizable woman holding her dog's paw in training. Photo: iStock/Zbynek Pospisil

The Joy of Training

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

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.

Problem behaviors

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.

  1. Make sure your puppy’s basic needs are being met. Does your puppy need to go out? Has your puppy had enough exercise? Does your puppy have appropriate chew toys?
  2. Avoid misunderstandings. Learn what is normal for dogs and for puppies at various life stages, how dogs learn, and how they communicate with body language.
  3. Reward the behaviors you want. When your puppy runs up to you and sits (instead of jumping), praise and reward your puppy.
  4. Ignore or redirect behavior that is unacceptable. If your puppy nips your hands when playing, withdraw your attention, then return and offer a toy. When your puppy grabs the toy, praise your puppy, and play.
  5. Set your puppy up for success. Modify the environment and supervise your puppy so she does not get herself into trouble.
  6. Assume good intentions. Dogs are very rarely stubborn and never vindictive. If your pup does not follow a cue, it is likely that he does not understand what you are telling him. Dogs' learning is very context-based. If he learns to sit, for example, in your quiet living room, he may not be able to comply in a busy park. He needs to practice in a variety of settings for his learning to be generalized. If your dog makes a mistake, such as eliminating in the house, he may be anxious, he may have not quite “gotten” house training, or he may have a bladder infection. He most certainly did not do it out of anger. Dogs don’t (and can’t) think that way.

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.

Dr. Borns-Weil says...

Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB

Dr. Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB

Board-Certified Animal Behaviorist

The research shows that positive reinforcement is not only the most humane approach to training but also the most effective.

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