By Sandy Modell
Alexandria, VA – At the beginning of each year, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) proclaims January as National Train Your Dog Month. The campaign’s goal is to raise owner and societal awareness that proper training and socialization are critical to dogs’ well-being in general.
The start of a new year is the perfect time to focus efforts on training your puppy or dog. Research shows that training and socializing dogs when they’re young can reduce or even eliminate behavior problems in the future. If you didn’t get started training your dog last month, there is no better time to get started than right now.
Training your dog is a lifelong journey. We don’t like the behaviors, such as barking, jumping, digging, pulling on the leash, etc., that are all normal dog behaviors. These behaviors are also very self-reinforcing, which means, the more they do them, the more they want to do them.
When dogs get to practice bad behaviors, they are rehearsing them for the next time. Remember, dogs will do whatever works for them until they are taught otherwise. Once your dog learns a repertoire of good behaviors and skills, it is more likely that he will repeat them. But if we stop reinforcing these behaviors, dogs commonly will revert to normal, but inappropriate, dog behaviors.
Teaching your dog to be calm, greet people politely, observe the environment without reacting to it does not come naturally. By spending a little time each day training, capturing, and reinforcing the behaviors you want will go a long way toward building “default or automatic behaviors.”
What are default behaviors? Default behaviors are behaviors the dog offers automatically, without your having to tell him. A default behavior gives your dog an alternative to unwanted behavior. It makes him more confident in situations that might otherwise cause him to be insecure, confused, and less able to process information.
For example, when you are on a walk, if your dog sees another dog or person walking, instead of lunging or barking or getting wildly excited, you can teach him to observe the situation and redirect their attention to you. They sit or stand calmly on their own, without your saying, “sit, sit, sit,” to no avail. Even if the dog sits, he is usually working hard to contain himself. Your dog may be sitting, but he is no calmer than before you asked him to sit.
One way to start building default behaviors is by “capturing” behaviors that you like. Sit down with some high-value treats (rewards) and wait for your dog to do something you like and would like to see repeated. When he sits or lies down on his own, is quiet and calm, looks at you, or just shows up, 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.
It is quite simple. Associating good behaviors with reinforcement will increase the likelihood that your dog will repeat those behaviors. All living things will repeat rewarding behavior and avoid behavior that is not.
It’s easy for humans to focus on a dog’s bad behaviors because those are the behaviors that get our attention. Rather than focusing on behaviors you don’t want by correcting or punishing your dog, think about what you want your dog to do instead, and give him plenty of opportunities to earn reinforcements.
Punishing your dog for “bad” behavior by yelling, spraying water, jerking the leash, or using physical force, forms negative associations that result in something unpleasant or even painful. You may argue that punishment then works because it stops the behavior from occurring again. This is true. But punishment doesn’t teach your dog what to do instead.
So get ready to start your lifelong journey with your dog, and let’s get training! Remember to make training time with your dog fun. Dogs are party animals, and their attention spans are short. By making training fun and interspersing play with training, you and your dog will enjoy the interactions much more. Your dog will look to you, rather than his environment, as the source of fun. And you will build a strong, positive relationship based on trust, cooperation, and love.
Sandy Modell, CPDT-KA, is the Founder, Owner, and Head of Training at 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 are starting soon! Visit www.wholistichound.com to enroll in our programs, and like us on Facebook.com/wholistichound and Instagram.com/wholistichound.