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Teaching Beats Jerking: The Fast Positive Track to Good Behavior

By Robin Tierney

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The following guidance is adapted from various sources, including Pat Miller's article, "Teach Instead of Correct," in Your Dog (Feb. 2008 issue).

Force-based corrections are popular because they yield instant results. But most often, the instant results are confusion, a temporary end to the behavior, possible fear-based aggression, and fear of you approaching in anger in the future.

Force does not teach what you what dog to do instead. Positive training does. Here are techniques from Miller's toolkit.

CATCH YOUR DOG IN THE ACT...OF BEING GOOD.

Set up opportunities to learn desired behavior. You don't have to limit education to "training sessions." Keep treats at hand in key places, or other rewards that you know appeal to your individual dog. Try using a clicker; see other articles to learn how to quickly "charge the clicker," which means teaching your dog to associate the click as "good!"

The key to positive training is to help your dog learn and understand what precise behaviors are desired because they "make good things happen."

MANAGE BEHAVIOR...AND ELIMINATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR BAD BEHAVIOR

Work to eliminate opportunities for, and reinforcement of, bad behavior. Try to reduce triggers of bad behavior in the environment.

Put shoes and trash cans out of reach. Baby-gate off-limits areas. If he gets wild when visitors come, put him in a room, then after the visitors are settled, bring him out on leash to greet them, removing the leash only after he has calmed down. Remember, however, it's essential to teach your dog what behaviors you want him to do instead of the undesired ones.

Keep in mind: many unwanted behaviors result from lack of exercise and/or insufficient nutrition.

DON'T REINFORCE BAD BEHAVIOR

Better to ignore those unwanted attention-seeking behaviors such as jumping, than to push and no-no-no your dog - which is giving him attention! Another smart strategy: teach your dog (as always, timing is key!) that inappropriate behavior makes a good thing go away.

TIMING IS KEY

Whether the reward is a treat, praise, toy or playtime, it's the reinforcer - and for it to work, you must deliver the reward at the exact instant your dog does the desirable behavior. Say "Yes!" or click the clicker is to mark even baby steps towards the desired behaviors. Those incremental movements shape good behavior.

TEACH VERBAL CUES AND HAND SIGNALS

Treats and other high-value rewards are great for reinforcing good behaviors. But you need to teach verbal cues and hand signals so that you can communicate directions to your dog. Plus you want your dog to perform behaviors even when there's no treat. So, you want to "fade the lure" - instead of rewarding a performed behavior with a treat every time, give the treat intermittently when the dog starts "getting" the concept. Also, work to teach your dog that praise and petting substitute for food treats.

GENERALIZE

Generalizing doesn't come natural to dogs. Practice your lessons in different places (different rooms, the yard, on walks, a friend's house), and vary the distractions (noises, people the dog knows, visitors, other people and their dogs). Introduce new places and new distractions one at a time so that the dog learns to generalize. After he has got the concept, then you can mix multiple novel things.

REDIRECT YOUR DOG TO DESIRED BEHAVIOR

* TARGETING:

Targeting is a good way to REDIRECT your dog's energy into a welcome behavior.

1. Offer your palm with fingers down.

2. When he sniffs or licks, click your clicker or say "Yes!" and give him a treat.

3. Repeat several times.

4. When he's reliably touching your palm with his nose, say "Touch" before his nose touches your hand. Click and treat.

5. Move the target: move back and he'll follow, move it closer to ground, then higher, requiring him to bend down or jump to touch it.

You can also teach him to target with a paw.

Once targeting is taught, you can redirect from an unwanted behavior by asking you dog to touch your hand with her nose.

Going for your shoe? Tell him to touch your hand. Barking? Interrupt that by telling him to touch your hand.

This new skill can be used to get attention, build confidence, teach polite leash walking, call him to you, send him to his place, even to learn to turn lights on and off by pressing switches with nose or paw.

Learn your dog's misbehavior triggers, such as an approaching stranger or knock at the door. Then you can anticipate and redirect his energy before he engages in the unwanted behavior.

* TRADE:

Teaching "let go," "drop it" or "release" is vital. TRADE is an effective way to do that. Trade a child's toy for a higher-value dog toy. Redirect a jumping dog's energy by having your visitor toss the toy, then have dog fetch the toy, bring it back and sit.

MODIFY THE BEHAVIOR

Does your dog jump to greet you or your visitors? Modify that behavior. Keep some tidbit treats in small jars in places where he tends to jump, such as by doors. Then when a visitor arrives, keep him on-leash to prevent jumping up, and reward him immediately when he sits as his new, modified greeting. This modification gives him something to do to use energy and get attention he craves.

Does the presence of a new baby or another dog in the home make the dog anxious or rowdy? While guarding behavior merits consultation with a behaviorist, for most situations, the solution involves redirecting the dog's attention to you and rewarding the dog when the baby or other dog is in the room.

Build the association of "baby/dog makes really good stuff happen." Reward immediately any sign of calm and/or acceptance. What if two dogs posture at each other? Give them both a brief and cheerful "Oops! Time-out!" apart one each other.

In the case of acclimating to a new baby, if the dog acts inappropriately, use the oops, time out tactic. Try again, keeping the dog tethered at first is a safe measure. But instead of you jerking the leash, tether it to furniture so that he eventually realizes it's his own activity that's causing his discomfort. Again, be ready with praise and treats to immediately reward any sign of good behavior.

Resources:

* Helpful Books for Pet People book list at http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_Books.php

* The Power of Positive Training, 2nd Edition and Positive Perspectives 2 - Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog - books by Pat Miller

http://www.dogwise.com/SearchResults.cfm?Search=Pat%20Miller&SubSearch=author

* Your Dog, published by Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine. This monthly ad-free newsletter is an excellent resource at $20 a year (http://www.tuftsyourdog.com).

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