Every organism learns the same way: we repeat behaviours that turn out good for us and avoid those that do not. By manipulating the environment and the consequences for behaviour you have the ability to choose which behaviours turn out good for your dog. This greatly increases the chances your dog will do them again.
As humans we are very good at ignoring our dog’s good behaviours as these are the ones that are easy to live with. In fact, many of us TRY to keep quiet about our dog’s good choices as we don’t want to ruin the moment! Picture your dog laying on his bed, chewing an appropriate toy. We often tiptoe around whispering “Don’t disturb the dog!” It is only when they start to behave “badly” that we come to life and begin to pay attention to them again. This sends the wrong message to your dog. Change your habits and start to watch for the good things they do!
Exercise: Count out 40 small treats or pieces of kibble. Put them in a bowl out of reach for your dog or into a pocket. Whenever you see your dog do something you like - cued or not - reward them with a piece of the food. Your goal is to use up all 40 treats in a day. This gives your dog 40 opportunities to make the right choice and improves their overall behaviour! Try it for 1 week and be amazed at the change in your dog!
Rewarding good behaviour is what makes it happen again and again. But what about bad behaviour? Many of the common behaviour challenges our dogs have are attention seeking behaviours. This means they do them to try for our attention. Jumping up on people is the perfect example. Dogs have learned that this makes people pay attention to them - whether it is in a good way or not! The perfect solution for these attention seeking behaviours is to ignore them. Remember that behaviour is strengthened or weakened by consequence: if they do not get any attention as a consequence for the jumping behaviour it will deteriorate. If you tell your dog “No” or “Off” you are still giving them attention and reinforcing the behaviour. Not all behaviours are attention seeking, for the others it is up to us to help our dogs make a better decision. For example, if your dog is chewing on the sofa ignoring it will not make the behaviour disappear. Instead, interrupt your dog with “Uh Uh” or clapping hands and redirect their attention to a preferred object for the behaviour. A stuffed Kong or chew toy is perfect. Be sure to praise this choice and you will see they begin to make better decisions.
Exercise: To learn, we must be motivated. Experiment with what motivates your dog. Try out different types of food (commercial treats such as freeze dried liver, peanut butter, deli meats, hotdogs, cheese), activities such as sniffing or playing, toys and interactions with you such as petting and praise. Rank them. Having this list is helpful when you need to find something your dog will work hard to get!
Patience and Consistency are key in dog training. We must be patient when dealing with a different species as there is a large communication barrier there. Your dog isn’t trying to be naughty, they just don’t understand the rules yet. Be patient. Your training, guidance and rules must stay consistent. This will help with the communication between you and your dog. Think of our example of the jumping dog. Each time the dog jumps he must be met with a turned back and removed attention. Every single time. He learns that this behaviour doesn’t work to get attention so he will stop doing it. However if we become lazy and inconsistent, we teach him that sometimes it will work so it is worth it to give a try. The behaviour stays.
An extinction burst happens when we work to extinguish a behaviour through ignoring it. The bad behaviour starts to break down and then suddenly appears stronger than ever. Don’t despair, this means it is working. Now, more than ever, is the time to be consistent. After the temper tantrum of undesirable behaviour it will be gone. Picture this: You approach a soda machine just like you do every weekend. You put in your dollar and press the button but nothing happens, nothing comes out. Do you walk away? Of course not. You press the button again. Harder. Maybe you give the machine a whack, a shake or a kick. Why do we do this? Because every other time we’ve put the dollar in the machine we’ve received the response we want. Why isn’t it working this time? This is an extinction burst - the same as what happens in dogs. When the reinforcer for the behaviour is removed our dogs are wondering why. Maybe they didn’t notice me? Maybe I should jump a bit higher? Be patient, be consistent.
Improve your dog’s behaviour by helping them make good decisions in each situation. Reward the behaviour you prefer. If your dog jumps up on you to say hello ask yourself how you would prefer them to greet you? A sit is a lovely way to say hi, you can start to teach your dog that when they come up to you they need to sit. Teaching an alternate behaviour is a great way to improve your dog’s behaviour!
Exercise: Begin to ask your dog to Sit before petting them each time. Stay consistent and you will find your dog starts to politely ask for attention by sitting in front of you!
Your ultimate goal in dog training is to build a beautiful companionship with your dog that is based on trust. Training should be enjoyable for you both! Have fun together, be patient with each other and enjoy the riches of a life with a well trained and happy dog!