Recently, I wrote about positive reinforcement and what it means. In behaviorist terms “positive” means adding something desired in response to a behavior and “reinforcement” is anything that happens that causes a particular behavior to happen more often.
That’s the technical definition of the terms, but it can also help to think of the words as they are used by non-professionals.
If you want to reinforce your dog’s good behaviors, then putting the “positive” in “positive reinforcement” begins with you and your energy.
Something I hear all the time from people are statements like, “I can’t control my dog,” or “I’ll never be able to make my dog behave.” The problem with this is that they all start out in the negative — cannot, can’t ever, no way. But when you’re dealing with energy, expectation is outcome.
Have you ever gone to a party you didn’t want to go to with a lot of people you didn’t know? In that situation, there are two ways to approach it. You can start out thinking, “I know hardly anyone there and I don’t really like the people I do know. This party is going to be terrible.”
Chances are, when you get to that party, it will be terrible.
But if you remain neutral or tell yourself, “Well, it’s a party. I’ll try to have fun and maybe I’ll meet interesting people,” then that party won’t be so terrible. It might even turn out really well.
So instead of focusing on what you think you can’t accomplish with your dog, focus on a positive outcome. “Today, my dog is going to behave on the walk.” Imagine that walk going perfectly before you even start. This will give you calm, confident energy, which your dog will sense and then reflect as their own calm, submissive energy.
“Can’t” and “will” states of mind are like the difference between an old adage and its opposite. A lot of people say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But the truth is more like, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” If you never believe that you can get the behavior you want from your dog, then you’ll never see that behavior.
The best part of this positive energy is that you can use it to make anything a reward for your dog. You won’t need to have those treats with you or give them their favorite toy. Once you get into the positive state and your dog is reflecting your energy, then their energy becomes all about making you, the Pack Leader, happy.
So, for reinforcement, you can then reward your dog by letting her sniff a bush or tree that she loves to explore, or letting her do something that she has found enjoyable, like carry around a stick she found. It doesn’t have to be a treat or a food reward. For example, my dog Junior loves nothing more than playtime with his favorite orange ball. When I take that ball out, there’s nothing else in the world for Junior except me, him, and it.
The advantage to using your positive energy and your bond with your dog to create the reward is that you’re always prepared. You don’t have to worry about forgetting your clicker or snacks or that you brought the wrong lead. Your energy becomes the most powerful training tool available.
If you don’t believe this, just bring a dog with issues into a well-balanced pack and you’ll be seeing the positive reinforcement almost immediately. A dog that needs to be rehabilitated will start following the calm, assertive dogs in the pack right away. It’s pure instinct, and that is what we have to tap into before we can see positive changes in our dogs.
Thinking that you can’t control your dog is counterproductive. Try seeing that positive outcome in your mind now, and notice how it changes your dog’s behavior. And if you still think you can’t do it, I have a story for you.
When I was hosting “Dog Whisperer,” I once had a case of a woman who had a daughter, and several dogs and birds. One of the dogs was an aggressive terrier. He’d try to get into the woman’s space, and growl and nip at her. When I saw that none of the humans in the house had the right energy necessary to control the dog, I enlisted her pet cockatoo.
That cockatoo had calm, assertive energy and immediately claimed its space. She was the one member of the family that could control the dog. She did it without threat, silently. The secret was completely in her energy and intent.
So — if a small bird can control a big, aggressive terrier, why can’t you control your dog? The answer is that you can. You just have to believe it before you’ll see it.
Stay calm, and positive!