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The Four Golden Rules of Successful Dog Training

New years famously yield new resolutions, but the arrival of January also denotes the start of National Train Your Dog Month. What could be a more befitting way to celebrate than by resolving to have a better training partnership with your dog?

Like all good partnerships, the human-canine bond is built upon mutual trust and respect.

Following these simple four golden rules will help make training with your dog easier and more successful, while avoiding some of the most common mistakes owners make.

Golden Rule No. 1: Resist Repeating Yourself

Repeating a cue may be the single biggest error that owners make when working with their dogs. As humans, when we make a request of someone and it isn’t honored, it is in our nature to repeat ourselves to ensure we were heard. Unfortunately, this is counterproductive when working with dogs.

An owner, James, calls his dog’s name, Bella, five times before she responds. What are the possible outcomes here? Bella could be: 1. Rewarded for responding. 2. Punished for not responding sooner. 3. Ignored by James.

In outcome No. 1, Bella learns that the correct thing to do when she hears her name is to wait for it to be called four more times, because that is when the reward comes. In outcome No. 2, she learns that responding to her name results in punishment — something she will try to avoid — making her less likely to respond to her name in the future. And in outcome No. 3, she learns that her name is irrelevant white noise, as nothing meaningful happens.

Golden Rule No. 2: Pay the Sticker Price

At its core, dog training is about behavioral economics, or the price we pay dogs to perform certain actions. For simple behaviors like “sit,” praise is often a sufficient paycheck, but more difficult behaviors like “stay” often require more of an incentive.

Let me offer two examples. My basset hound, Sonny, is one of the most social creatures I have ever met. Trying to get him to walk away from the opportunity to play with another dog can be a monumental task. When we are at the park, a piece of kibble has less value to him than the opportunity to play with another dog. But a super high-value treat? That will do the trick.

Now my other boy, Franky, can be very timid. Unlike Sonny, Franky prefers to play alone. So when I call him away from another dog, verbal praise is sufficient reward.

The more difficult the request, the higher the paycheck. It’s behavioral economics, and dogs generally have very little wiggle room on their sticker price.

Golden Rule No. 3: No Pace for Punishment

Dogs determine the value of a reward, not us. The converse of this is also true. Dogs determine what is punishing as well. While we may find yelling to be common behavior as humans, many dogs find it to be aversive. This is why we cannot overlook the potential consequences of our actions as teachers.

Bella is a very strong puller, and James is having a difficult time walking her. He decides to buy a prong collar to stop her from putting tension on the leash. While James may see immediate relief from Bella’s leash pulling, the problem with this aversive tool is with what James cannot see.

Prong collars function by causing discomfort when there is tension on the leash to “teach” a dog to avoid feeling pain. In fact, when the same force is applied to both a prong and flat collar, dogs experience 155 times more pressure from prongs. The addition of something unpleasant, like a prong, to stop a behavior from occurring is known in dog training as positive punishment. Because dogs learn by association, anything present in Bella’s environment while she is feeling pain can take on an aversive association — other dogs, children, strangers, bicycles, to name a few. When this happens, Bella’s desire to avoid the pain around her neck can be transferred to a desire to avoid the things in her environment. This can lead to aggression toward those things, as she attempts to prevent them from causing her pain.

In addition to avoiding the use of positive punishment in training, it is also incumbent for us to remember that training must be done at the dog’s pace. If we push our four-legged friends too hard too fast in a training scenario, we can inadvertently cause them to develop traumatic emotional responses.

Golden Rule No. 4: Let the Dog Choose

It is crucial to remember that all behavior is conditional. This means to teach or modify any behavior, we need to change the conditions that allow it to occur. In training, dogs are the learners, and we are the teachers. In other words, humans control the learning conditions. This means the onus to teach or modify behaviors doesn’t belong to the dog. Rather, it is our responsibility to change the conditions that allow them to exist.

Let’s say James comes home and finds Bella on the couch where she is not allowed. After cueing Bella to get down to no avail, James resorts to pushing her off the couch. While the way James solved this problem may appear innocent on the surface, he is venturing down a potentially dangerous path. Dogs have a natural instinct to protect valuable items such as food, toys, and locations like sleeping areas. In dog training, this is referred to as resource guarding. By pushing Bella off the couch, not only is James removing her ability to choose where to sleep, he is leaving the underlying emotional reason for sleeping on the couch unaddressed.

In the end, it is important to remember that by empowering dogs to make choices, we are helping them to feel control over their environment, which creates confidence and calm behavior, and in turn, fosters a human-canine relationship built upon mutual trust and understanding.

Rusty Barnes, CPDT-KA, was voted the East Bay’s Best Private Trainer in Bay Woof’s 2018 Beast of the Bay Awards. He specializes in canine fear and aggression, is a Pet Partners therapy dog handler and a professional member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Pet Professional Guild and Humane Dog Training Advocates. For more information, visit Pawgress.dog

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.

Main article photo by: Photo courtesy Rusty Barnes