Our dogs give us companionship, fun, and unconditional love. They may also give us barking, muddy paws on the sofa, and chew marks all over our favorite pair of designer shoes. While dogs may be humankind’s best friends, they are also living creatures with agendas of their own–agendas that may not necessarily line up with our expectations.
Fortunately for both dogs and people, our canine companions are remarkably responsive to our actions. According to animal behaviorist John Bradshaw dogs learn from the people around them starting from the moment their eyes are open, and they find human attention to be extremely rewarding. Dogs can even read us better than can our closest relatives, chimpanzees. One study found that while chimpanzees ignored human pointing gestures, dogs immediately understood what pointing meant, even without any prior training.
This means that although your dog may have some behavior issues, she is primed to respond to your cues. Moreover, although some dogs may require more patience, time, or even professional assistance, all dogs can learn new behaviors. Read on for an overview of three popular dog training methods.
Just like us, dogs love rewards in the form of approval, play, and (of course) tasty treats. Positive reinforcement training uses your dog’s natural love of rewards to train him gradually to perform desired behaviors while weaning him out of bad habits. For training your dog to lie down on command, for instance, you would say “down,” and hand him his treat the moment his stomach touches the ground. With enough repetition, the dog will learn that responding to this command by dropping to the ground will result in a coveted snack.
When dealing with unwanted behaviors, such as barking, chewing and jumping on people and furniture, positive reinforcement training advises ignoring the dog, rather than punishing his misdeeds. Some trainers believe that dogs view any attention from people–even negative attention–as a reward. They also believe that punishing a dog serves only to confuse him and increase his stress. By turning your back on your dog when he jumps up to greet you, however, your dog learns that this behavior results in getting the cold shoulder from you.
Positive reinforcement training tips:
- Find something that is enticing to use for your dog as his reward. For most dogs, this will probably be their favorite food, but other dogs may respond best to toys or kudos from you.
- Reward the behavior, not what immediately follows it. A dog learning to sit and stay may find himself leaping to his feet in excitement. If his reward comes too late, he may start to think that jumping up is what you’d like him to do.
- Be consistent. Always use the same commands (“Sit.” “Stay.” “Down.”) to signal the same desired action. Be sure that every member of the household is on the same page.
For a detailed look at positive reinforcement training, visit this guide by the Humane Society of the United States.
Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training that uses a clicking sound to let your dog know when she’s done something right. By first rewarding your dog with a treat every time you press the clicker–a small device you hold in your palm–you train her to expect good things whenever she hears the clicking sound. Then, when your dog does something correctly during training, you press the clicker to signal “good job!” By clicking the instant your dog performs a desired behavior, such as sitting or lying down, you allow her to make the mental connection that this is what you’d like for her to do.
Clicker training tips:
- As with positive reinforcement training, be sure to click during the desired behavior, not after.
- Click only once. Clicking more than that may confuse your dog. If you want to express added enthusiasm, do so with extra treats, not extra clicks.
- Eliminate bad behavior by clicking only for good behavior. Instead of punishing your dog for jumping on a sofa that’s off-limits, for instance, reward the dog for keeping her feet on the ground through clicking and a treat.
- A verbal command or whistle also works if you prefer not to use a clicker.
Alpha dog training
Alpha dog training uses both positive and negative reinforcement to reward good behaviors and correct undesirable ones. Instead of ignoring your dog’s bad behavior, the alpha dog training method punishes the dog using physical methods with devices like choke collars or e-collars that deliver a shock. Alpha dog training also emphasizes establishing your authority through gestures such as the alpha-dog-roll, in which you force your dog to her back and stare down at her.
With the rise of positive reinforcement training methods, alpha dog training has become controversial. Organizations such as the ASPCA, the HSUS and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior advise against using dominance and punishment methods in dog training. They state that it can confuse and stress your dog, possibly even increasing her aggression.
Instead of meting out painful punishments when your dog behaves poorly, try being a benevolent dictator. Responding to your dog’s behavior calmly but firmly will go a long way towards putting you back in charge.
Some tips for establishing your authority with your dog:
- Once you’ve decided what the rules of the household are, enforce them consistently. For instance, there may be specific pieces of furniture that are always off-limits to your dog, no matter what–don’t make exceptions just because your dog gives you a pleading stare.
- When you give a command to your dog, speak clearly and firmly. Say a command only once, so as not to dilute its message.
- Don’t issue commands that you have no way of enforcing. Helplessly shouting “come!” after your dog as she gallops away from you at the park does not teach her to associate the word with the desired action!
For more information on how dogs view authority, including what to do if your dog has dominance-related aggression problems, read this overview by the ASPCA.
There are numerous advantages to training your dog, as outlined in a previous Ohio Animal Companion article. Well-trained dogs are safer and more likely to be included in activities with their human family, as they can be trusted to not be disruptive. Training can also bring you closer to your dog, as you spend time together working towards a goal. Although it requires time, patience and dedication, the results of training are worth it, for both you and your dog. – Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.
All photos by Ana Fuentes