Training theories and misconceptions abound in the animal world. Step into a dog park and slip training philosophies into the conversation, and World War III just might erupt. Dog owners tend to fall into one of two camps regarding training style—positive reinforcement or dominance theory. And, some combine these two styles and call it “balanced training,” which combines reward and punishment. In recent years, positive training has gained momentum and edged out balanced or “pack leader” training.
There are many benefits of using positive reinforcement training methods for pets, including:
- Reduction in fear and stress of pets
- Strengthened bond between pet and owner
- Faster learning of new behaviors
- Ability to teach unnatural behaviors
- Ability to teach complex behaviors
- Children can safely use this method (training involving punishment can be dangerous)
How positive training works
Positive reinforcement training allows pets to make choices. When a pet makes the correct choice, performing the desired behavior, she receives a reward. When a pet makes an incorrect choice and performs an undesirable behavior, she is not punished.
Imagine having two options to learn:
- Rewards come when you do something correctly, even though you may not know what you’re supposed to do. No punishments are ever handed out.
- Rewards are given when you perform correctly, but you are punished when you are incorrect, even though you may not know what you’re supposed to do.
Under option two, you probably wouldn’t be all that enthusiastic and excited about attempting new things for fear of doing something wrong and being punished. Option one is much more enjoyable and encouraging, and it highlights the philosophy behind positive reinforcement training.
How to begin positive reinforcement training
If you’re ready to make the leap into positive training, congratulations! You are well on your way to developing a rock-solid bond with your pet based on mutual respect and trust. Follow these tips to easily shift to positive training:
- Avoid telling your pet “no” or using negative sounds. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of positive training is learning to ignore all incorrect behaviors without informing your pet of her misbehavior. Using negative markers can hinder your pet’s ability to learn, so try to zip your lips when you feel the urge to say no.
- Use a marker for correct behavior. The marker can be a clicker, or just a short, consistent, upbeat word, such as “yes” or “good.” The moment your pet performs the desired behavior, click or say your marker word immediately.
- Pair a marker with a reward. Each time you use your marker, be sure to give your pet a reward. She will learn that the marker means a treat for a job well done. Just be sure to mark immediately when you see a behavior you like, and always pair that marking sound with a treat, or it will lose its meaning.
- Match the behavior with a cue. Once your pet is reliably performing the behavior you want, pair it with a cue, such as “sit” or “down.” Before you know your pet will execute that specific behavior, either say or gesture your cue, and consistently reward the correct behavior.
- Phase out the high-value treat. You may not always be armed with a clicker and a treat in your pocket. Once your pet is reliably conducting behaviors on cue, you can slowly replace high-value treats with praise.
- Be consistent and patient. Part of the fun in training is watching your pet figure out the exact behavior you’re rewarding, but it can be frustrating if she doesn’t pick up on it quickly. Be patient and reward each tiny step toward your goal. Consistently reward your pet for a job well done to keep her focused and enthusiastic.
How to find a positive reinforcement trainer
Training pets is tough, especially if you’re attempting to get that hyperactive puppy to focus for more than two seconds. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a certified pet trainer so you can get your pup started on the right paw. When choosing a trainer, look for these qualifications:
- Certifications — CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA are the only nationally recognized certifications
- Uses only positive reinforcement methods
- Disputes dominance or alpha theory
- Does not use electric, choke, or prong collars
- Has excellent references
Interested in finding a positive dog trainer in our area? Give us a call to find out who we recommend.