Say YES! instead of NO!: thoughts on positive-reinforcement dog training.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for 34 years, and dogs have been my passion for even longer. When I started training, we followed the corrective methods forged in the military: put a chain or prong collar on a dog and jerk to get the behavior we wanted. Sometimes, if our dogs did it right, we’d give them a cookie. Though our hearts often broke for our dogs, we trusted our teachers.

Using positive training methods allows dogs to be happy, creative, and eager to learn.

Thankfully, research has since shown that harsh training methods (angry, raised voices, often shouting “NO”, jerking and popping, using a prong or chain collar, hitting your dog, or using spray bottles–to name just a few) can not only injure your dog emotionally, but damage your relationship with your dog in much the same way that abusive behavior can damage human family relationships. Dogs can also be injured physically from some of these methods. For example, throughout her life, Vera, our German shepherd, had difficulty breathing when she drank due to a damaged trachea from a choke chain which was used on her in her first home. Even expert military trainers are now using positive methods. Why? Because dog and handler must trust each other implicitly and their partnership must be absolute.

Clearly this puppy is experiencing joy! His mouth is open and relaxed, tongue showing, eyes soft, and no wrinkles of anxiety around his mouth or on his forehead.

It is thought that dogs have emotions equivalent to a two and a half-year-old child. They can experience joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but not guilt. When they experience fear–and they do experience fear from punishment-style training (see Sophie Yin’s poster on “the body language of fear in dogs,” and then observe your dog’s reaction to corrections closely), they might respond in a number of ways such as: “shutting down” (emotionally withdrawing from the situation), handler-directed aggression, dog-dog aggression, or aggression toward strangers. They might also develop anxiety and ongoing anxiety-based behaviors such as self-inflicted sores or hot-spots, in-home destruction, relieving themselves inside the home, separation anxiety, or learning difficulties.

The trouble with punishment-style training is that it often works in the moment. It’s therefore very reinforcing to the handler because the dog will often stop what he’s doing out of fear and to avoid further punishment. This gives the handler a sense of gratification. Unfortunately, the dog doesn’t learn how to change his behavior. He just becomes more anxious, often increasing the unwanted behavior. A dog’s ability to learn diminishes as stress increases, just as it does in humans.

The other thing that makes punishment so rewarding to us is that as primates, we are hardwired to shout and use our hands to hit when we are frustrated or angry, so the very act of punishing our dogs can feel like the right thing to do and make us feel better about training our dogs.

What to do instead…

Transitioning to positive methods can be hard. I know, because I’ve done it. Positive methods feel permissive, like they don’t have “teeth.” However, by not reinforcing “bad” behaviors, and by rewarding the behaviors you are looking for with praise and/or treats, your dog will become enthusiastic about learning and working with you. Being consistent 100% of the time, and preventing unwanted behaviors by planning what you want him to do in advance, actually works!

Say, for example, you want your dog to stay off the couch. Rather than yelling at him to get off, you could block his access to it with baby gates, or put something such as books on the cushions to dissuade him from getting up in the first place. By NEVER allowing him to get on the couch, and by planning short training sessions where he’s rewarded for NOT getting onto the couch (you could toss treats on the floor next to the couch, or give him a special chew toy on his bed in the same room), he will learn to stay off the furniture without fear of being punished for making a mistake. Before long, he’ll stay on the floor and won’t attempt to get onto the couch.

This is a clicker from the Karen Pryor website.

Using a clicker or a marker word such as “YES” followed immediately by a treat, is a fun, positive, and very effective way to teach your dog skills without fear or intimidation. Due to the release of chemical mediators in the brain, anticipation of the treat is just as powerful a reward as the treat itself. The click or word “yes” actually marks the precise behavior you want to reinforce in your dog, and the treat follows within two seconds. Watch this short video of Vera (from Finding Vera) introducing clicker training.

A “reward” can be anything your dog likes. It can be food, praise, a toy, doing a favorite trick, or getting a chest scratch. The reward is given to your dog as payment AFTER he completes the behavior you request, or when he makes a good behavioral choice. Guiding one’s dog to make the correct choice is part of our job as trainers and dog parents, and it’s your dog’s right to be paid for a job done well.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement training methods, contact a professional trainer through CPDT or KPA to help you make the transition. If you haven’t already tried positive reinforcement training, I’d recommend that you do so. Using positive methods is not only immensely rewarding to both you and your dog, but will strengthen your relationship in ways you might not have thought possible.

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