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When in Doubt, Remember your ABCs

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

Sonny dog
Learning how to train your dog is not complicated, but it can be be complex.

Most of my clients already understand the basics of learning theory when they first call me for help. They may not be able to explain the act of rewarding a dog with food for good behavior as positive reinforcement, and they may not describe using the pain of a prong collar to discourage a dog from pulling on its leash as positive punishment. But in general, they understand that dogs learn through association.

So where is the problem? In order to answer this question, we have to learn how to look past its surface.

Not only is canine behavior incredibly nuanced, it is also 100% situational. A wagging tail does not always mean a happy or playful dog. A yawn does not necessarily indicate sleepiness, and all growls are not created equal. In other words, context matters.

Take the prong collar, for example. On the surface, putting one on your dog might lead to a loose leash in the short-term by teaching him to avoid pain when pulling, but if your dog sees a child while feeling the pain of a prong, the collar can actually cause aggression toward children in the long-run.

As advocates for our canine companions, we must learn to look beyond what we can see and remember that all behavior must be viewed in its appropriate context. This is often the most difficult aspect of training for owners, and that is why I developed and teach a basic set of principles to help simplify the complexities of canine behavior. These principles are fundamental to the success of any learning opportunity and provide the optimal starting place for any training program.

They are:

Adopt a positive approach and attitude

Be focused on incremental success

Create calm and confidence through choice and consistency

Let’s break these down.

A: We know that dogs learn by association. For example, to teach your dog to sit, we give a cue (verbal or nonverbal), the dog sits, and we mark and reward this behavior. In his efforts to earn as many rewards as possible, your dog learns to associate the word or gesture for “sit” with the the action of sitting. The approach of rewarding a correct behavior is called “positive reinforcement.” This method uses operant conditioning to teach your dog what he is doing right, rather than reprimanding him for doing something wrong.

Not only does positive reinforcement increase the rate of learning, it encourages dogs to work harder for a reward, eliminates the need for the use of force or aversive training tools (like prongs), and fosters a bond between you and your dog that is built upon mutual trust and respect, rather than a desire to avoid fear, pain or punishment.

Your attitude is just as important as your approach. Dogs are very observant creatures, and are capable of picking up on nuanced differences in your body language, tone of voice, gestures, and even your emotional state of mind. Your dog relies on you to help him navigate everyday situations that he does not know how to handle, so it is important to approach them with a positive attitude. In doing so, you will condition him to follow suit.

B: The first step in teaching a dog anything is getting his attention, and conditioning a strong focus cue is the most reliable way to accomplish this. Without his attention, success in learning does not happen. And without success, it is difficult to maintain a positive attitude.

In training, rarely does success come all at once. More often that not, a dog’s behavior must be shaped, or taught through a series of incremental steps. Always set your dog up for success. If your dog is struggling to understand what you are asking of him, make your request easier and reward him for each baby step he takes. And remember, bigger steps = bigger rewards.

C: Training at its most basic level is the systematic process to building a dog’s confidence in learning or eliminating a particular behavior. In order to accomplish this, we manage fear and over-stimulation by rewarding calm behavior. And remember, we do this by empowering dogs to make their own choices through positive reinforcement.

Probably the most important and yet the most forgotten word in all of training is consistency. Without it, nothing will be accomplished. Dogs are conditioned to learn through repetition, and owners must be diligent in rewarding the behaviors they wish to continue.

The ABCs of dog training provide a great starting point for at-home training solutions, but it is always a good idea to seek the help of a professional trainer to ensure you are applying them in the right contexts.

Remember, dog training is not complicated, but it is complex. Bark at us to schedule your free, 30-minute meet and greet today.

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