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Positive training – Fact or Fiction?

Every year, millions of Americans welcome a new dog into their home, particularly in the late spring and early summer. And every year, hundreds of thousands of dogs are given up for adoption, chiefly because they exhibit unruly behavior. Why? Because many people think they know everything necessary to train their companion animals, when really they have nothing other than a vague idea.

Experts agree, obedience training is absolutely essential to the long-term success of the relationship between you and your dog. Training provides parameters for acceptable behavior and helps to ensure the safety of your precious pup, as well as the safety of others coming in contact with your dog.

There are two primary cornerstones of obedience training: consistency and positive reinforcement. Consistency is simply this – always reward the desired behavior and never reward unwanted behavior. Another aspect of consistency is an agreement that everyone issuing commands uses the same words that you do. And positive reinforcement can take many forms, but at root it is providing incentives for good behavior and a steadfast promise never to physically abuse your canine as punishment. If you can commit to providing consistency and positive reinforcement, you’re well on your way to teaching your dog basic obedience behavior.

Here’s a term you’ll hear in relation to canine behavior – dominance hierarchy, which is a fancy way of describing the social structure of dogs. Basically, it means that dogs, as social beings, crave structure. Often, when dogs are fearful of new situations and unexpected noises, it’s commonly due to a lack of an established social structure in their adopted family. It’s up to you to position yourself as the dominant leader, establishing that your dog falls below you in the family ranking.

No matter what type of training you choose, timing is essential. It is absolutely imperative that you reward your dog within seconds of the correct behavior. Waiting longer than a couple of seconds will be confusing to your dog, as she will not be able to associate the positive reinforcement with the appropriate behavior.

While there are many things you need to do, there are a few that you need to make certain that you do not do. Here are a couple of items that fall in the latter category …

  • Do not repeat the specified command multiple times to get your dog to do the behavior once. You’re defeating the purpose of training by teaching him/her that there are times when it’s okay not to do the behavior in association with the command.
  • Do not punish your dog for failure to execute a specified command. If you do, you’ll immediately teach them that training is something to fear. Believe us, you don’t want to do this. While there are many schools of thought on the best way to train, all experts can agree on this issue. While some fringe (and possibly very mean) people will insist that negative reinforcement is an effective tool for training, it will always take longer, be less effective and it will cause your dog to have difficulty trusting you in the future.

While we’ve tried to stress that you should not punish your dog during obedience training, sometimes negative reinforcement is necessary to deter unwanted behavior. As doling out punishments can negatively impact your dog’s trust, it’s best that the negative stimulus appears to come from an object (other than you), like shaking a small container full of coins (trust us, it’s an unpleasant sound to your dog). Again, it’s very important that the negative stimulus occur during or immediately after the undesired action.

A final warning on negative reinforcement – if incorrectly used, you’ll risk making your dog fearful, distrustful and possibly aggressive, only to be more likely to exhibit negative behaviors.

Commit to doing the best that you can.  Tens of thousands of people successfully train their puppies and dogs every year.  Keep in mind that there are many different approaches and methods of dog training.  That’s why it’s important to speak to your vet or a trusted pet professional for recommendations regarding local trainers who will be a good match for you and your dog.

Remember, most canines are eager to please. They want you to show them what to do. Training is just as much about teaching your dog as it is learning acceptable methods of training yourself.

By harnessing your dog’s natural curiosity, you’ll both be on your way to a long and pleasant life together.

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