One of the things people often ask me is, “What’s the best training method for my dog?” It can be a confusing subject, because there are two approaches to training, and various techniques.
Training comes down to either “do” or “don’t” — encourage a positive behavior or discourage a negative one. This can be based on rewards, like a treat, or ending a bad thing, like stopping in your tracks when the dog pulls and not moving until she relaxes.
Techniques are not important. I do use positive reinforcement when I work with dogs, but not in the way that it’s commonly understood.
Before I can explain that, let’s go back to dog psychology. Dogs are social pack animals, with a leader and followers. The leaders provide protection and direction to the rest of the pack. The protection helps to create trust, respect, and loyalty. Direction means creating the rules, boundaries, and limitations that define what behavior is acceptable in the members of the pack.
In a wild pack, it’s the job of the dogs at the rear to warn of danger. That’s the rule: sense danger, bark to alert the pack. If these dogs either don’t bark when they’re supposed to or bark all the time, then they are not fulfilling their role, and they endanger the entire pack.
When dogs join us as part of our human packs, they still need rules, boundaries, and limitations. When they don’t get them, they lack protection and direction. If they don’t feel protected, they can lash out defensively at the humans around them. If they don’t get direction, they’ll make their own rules.
This is why it’s so important to remember that dogs need exercise and discipline first, and then affection only when they are in a calm, submissive state. Give affection at the wrong time, and you’re training your dog to continue doing whatever it was doing. It may look cute the first time the puppy pulls all of the toilet paper off of the roll and drags it all over the house, but if your reaction is to laugh and give the puppy attention, then “pull this paper off the roll” becomes one of the dog’s rules. It’s not so cute anymore after coming home to the mess a few times.
No amount of training can overcome these misbehaviors. Teaching a dog to sit, stay, or roll over will just teach them that they can get a reward when they do these things, but it won’t stop them from eating your shoes or pulling on the walk. You could spend the time training your dog out of all of their misbehaviors, but the training may only be effective when you’re actually around — without the trainer present, there’s no reward or punishment to change behavior.
Now back to that different method of positive reinforcement. This one doesn’t use specific techniques. Instead, think of creating those rules, boundaries, and limitations as the positive reinforcement. Remember: Your dog wants you to tell her what behavior is expected. When she has rules, boundaries, and limitations, she doesn’t have to try to figure out what she’s supposed to do. It’s a lot less stressful for her.
For example, if you create the rule that when you’re getting ready to go to work your dog has to go lie on his bed, this will keep him from becoming excited or anxious about your impending departure. He has something else to do, and he knows he’s supposed to do it. If you create a boundary around the dinner table that your dog cannot cross, then he will understand that the area belongs to the humans, and won’t become obsessed with trying to beg for food.
“Limitation” means that you control the length or intensity of an activity. The game of fetch is over when you say it is.
This is where calm, assertive energy comes into the process. When creating each of these rules, boundaries, and limitations, do it in a calm, assertive way. This energy will reassure your dog — it’s the energy of a Pack Leader, after all. It creates the association in your dog’s mind: If I do this, my Pack Leader is calm and happy.
And that is the only positive reinforcement you need. You don’t have to give your dog a cookie to get her to behave, because you and your approval become the cookie. Our dogs want to please us. We just have to be clear and consistent with what we want.
Once you’ve achieved this relationship, then training your dog is easy, and you can use whichever technique you’re comfortable with. But balancing a dog has nothing to do with training and techniques. It has everything to do with being a calm, assertive Pack Leader, and creating rules, boundaries, and limitations.
Stay calm, and positive!
As the Pack Leader, do you practice positive reinforcement with yourself? Do you reward yourself when you’re a good girl/boy?