All Things Dog

Training through positive reinforcement

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Training plays a crucial role in ensuring a happy and successful relationship between you and your dog. The foundations for a happy, well-adjusted dog are laid down during the early stages of puppyhood with a well-structured training program; this should be fun for you and your dog. There are many methods of training, but the most satisfying for both you and your dog are those based on positive reinforcement—which means the dog is rewarded for correct actions.

How dogs learn

To train a dog most effectively, we need to understand how dogs learn. In the "doggy world," learning consists of trying out new behaviors and seeing what happens as a consequence of this behavior. If the behavior (action) is followed by a good consequence, the dog will repeat the behavior. For example, a dog who begs at the table might be rewarded by getting food. But if the behavior (the begging) is followed by a negative consequence, such as no food being given, the dog will eventually stop the behavior.

Effective training should work on the same principle. It should be a combination of information: what you want the dog to do; motivation: a reason for your dog to do it; and timing: when to reward a good action.

Clicker training

Clicker training uses the principle of positive reinforcement. A "clicker" is a small plastic box containing a strip of metal that makes a clicking sound when pressed. The vital first step to clicker training is finding the dog's motivation. For most dogs, this means either a tasty snack or play.

The next step is to associate a positive meaning to the click, telling the dog, "Yes, this is right, you have done the right thing, and so you'll get a reward." The first stage is therefore to associate the sound of the click with something positive. You need to deliver this information within seconds.

A simple exercise to try with your puppy, using the clicker training method, is teaching him to sit:

  1. Hold a treat in your hand, and wait for the puppy's rear to touch the floor. Be patient. Don't be tempted to give a command or position the puppy in a sit. Wait until he eventually sits by himself.
  2. As soon as your puppy's rear touches the floor, click and give him a snack.
  3. Repeat this a number of times in short training sessions, in a variety of locations.
  4. Then, begin to say "sit" as your puppy's rear touches the floor. Continue to give a click and treat. Your dog is now learning that sit does indeed mean putting his rear on the floor, because he only hears this word when he's in a sitting position.

After the above has been repeated a number of times (40 - 80 times over several short sessions), you can begin to ask your puppy to sit—that is, give the command before his rear is on the floor. Continue giving a click and a snack as the puppy sits. But only ask your puppy to sit if you're confident he'll do it.

Now your puppy knows what sit means—the clicker is no longer needed for this command, but keep on rewarding him once in a while with snacks when he sits on command.

Always use positive reinforcement

There are many methods of training, and clicker training is just one. But make sure you use the principle of positive reinforcement with any training method you use.

We should aim to reward everything that's positive, desirable behavior, and ignore any negative, undesirable behavior. In practice, of course, it's not always easy to ignore all negative behavior. Jumping up at visitors, for instance, is an undesirable behavior that's difficult to ignore. It would be useful to distract the dog from an undesirable behavior by asking him for a desirable one, such as to sit. If the dog is then rewarded for sitting, he'll find that sitting is more satisfying than jumping up.

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