By Sandy Modell
Alexandria, VA – January is all about new beginnings. We welcome a new year with open arms as a clean slate, an opportunity to start anew, even though the only thing that may have changed is the date on paper. Often referred to as the “fresh start effect,” this little-researched phenomenon allows us to surmount willpower challenges because our motivation to change or take action is at a high point. The popularity of New Year’s resolutions makes it clear that we are are more likely to tackle goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks, such as a new week, month, or year.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has proclaimed January to be National Train Your Dog Month, with the slogan, “Train them, don’t blame them.” The goal is to raise owner and societal awareness that proper training and socialization are critical to dogs’ wellbeing. January is the ideal time to focus efforts on training your puppy or dog. Research shows that training and socializing dogs when they’re young can reduce or prevent future behavior problems.
Remember that training your dog is not only beneficial, that it should also be fun. Dogs thrive on mental stimulation. They love the chance to learn and practice something new. But more than anything, they will relish the opportunity to bask in your undivided attention as you work toward a common goal together. Time spent training is time spent bonding and building a strong relationship between you and your dog. Isn’t that what having a dog is all about?
One way to get started is by “capturing” behaviors that you like. Sit yourself down with some high-value treats (rewards) and simply wait for your dog to do something you like and would like to see repeated. For example, when he sits or lies down on his own, is quiet and calm, looks at you, or just shows up, simply mark the behavior right when it happens with a clicker or verbal marker, such as the word “yes!,” and then reward him with a pea-sized treat.
Associating your dog’s good behaviors with reinforcement increases the likelihood that he will repeat those behaviors. It really is quite simple. All living things will repeat behaviors that are rewarding and avoid behaviors that are not. Instead of focusing on behaviors that you don’t want by correcting or punishing your dog, think in terms of what you do want, and give your dog plenty of opportunities to earn reinforcements.
While humans have the mental capacity and language to explain and comprehend the difference between right and wrong, animals do not have this capacity. Dogs will generally do whatever works for them, unless they are taught otherwise.
Dogs learn through association (emotional response) and are very good at making both good and bad associations. These associations inform the decisions they make and how they react to various situations and stimuli.
The second way dogs learn is by consequence (by doing). They quickly learn what does and doesn’t work for them—what is safe, what is good, what is dangerous or bad for them.
When you reward your dog for behaviors that you like, she learns that that behavior has a positive consequence. She will want to repeat the behavior again and again because the outcome (consequence) is positive and good.
At the same time, if your dog does something you don’t like, and the only consequence is no reward or reaction from you, he will quickly learn (after a few attempts) that this behavior has neither a good nor a bad consequence, and will be less likely to keep repeating it.
Punishing your dog for “bad” behavior (yelling, spraying water at him, jerking the leash, or using physical force) will quickly form negative associations. You may argue then that punishment works because it stops the behavior from occurring again. This is true. But punishment does not teach your dog what to do instead. It runs contrary to modern methods that use behavioral science as the basis for teaching or changing behavior.
Using positive reinforcement has been universally endorsed by the behavioral science community at large as the most effective, long-lasting, humane, and safest method in dog training. Here are three reasons why training your dog using state-of-the-art positive methods is very effective, fun, and builds a relationship with your dog based on trust and cooperation instead of fear or force.
1) Recent research on how dogs think and how they learn concludes that dogs can learn to make the right behavior choices through reinforcement. Allowing them to think through what we want them to do builds confidence, enthusiasm, and resilience, while reducing reactivity, anxiety and fear.
2) Using positive methods forms positive associations with you and with training. It motivates your dog to want to learn and provides lots of mental stimulation, while increasing their problem-solving skills.
3) Positive training builds optimism! An optimistic dog is more adaptable, flexible, and confident in everyday life situations.
New Year’s resolutions may sometimes fall by the wayside, but training your dog is a lifelong journey. So, let’s get started! If you would like to learn more about National Train Your Dog Month, visit the campaign’s website and also check out the Wholistic Hound Academy website for additional resources, tips, and information on our upcoming Winter 2020 classes.
Sandy Modell, CPDT-KA, is the Founder and CEO of Wholistic Hound Academy, Alexandria’s award winning, premier canine training and learning center — offering classes and private lessons in puppy training, adult dog manners, behavior modification, agility, dog sports and canine fitness and conditioning, kids and dogs, pre-pet planning and pet selection. Classes starting soon! Visit www.wholistichound.com to enroll in our programs, and like us on Facebook.com/wholistichound.