Learning to train

treat retreat training classGiven all the challenges facing dogs in regard to understanding humans, they do a remarkable job of it. Even without formal training most dogs figure out what their humans want them to do, when and how to do it. Imagine how much more a dog could understand if only we leveled the playing field for them and gave them more tools for understanding us.

If you are not familiar with the controversy regarding dominance based training techniques and why you should avoid trying to be the alpha dog, please review Dr. Sophia Yin’s information on the subject. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior also has their position statements available on the subject.

When you learn how to communicate with your dog using positive reinforcement techniques you not only make it easier to live with your dog, you help the dog gain the skills and confidence it needs to function in a world of potentially scary things.

If you’ve never taken a training class with your dog I highly recommend it. These classes are not just about getting your dog to do what you ask, but learning ‘how’ to train your dog. I would add that any training class you attend with or for a fearful dog should be 100% positive reinforcement. Aversive techniques could make your dog’s behavior worse. The whole idea behind learning to train your dog is to establish a common language that both of you understand and to let that communication solidify the relationship you have with your dog. Certainly you can get a dog to perform certain behaviors (or not perform certain behaviors) by punishing them, but depending on how it is done, you are walking a fine line of losing whatever trust your dog has in you. Before using punishment (anything that makes your dog stop a certain behavior) make sure you’ve discussed it with your trainer and agree that it is the best approach to take with your dog.

Your dog may not be ready to participate in a training class but it is a good place to start introducing your dog to the wide world, if it’s ready. I attended several training sessions with Sunny during which my goal was to just reward him with treats for being in a room full of people. In a class you’re able to explain to other participants how to interact (or not) with your dog. It wasn’t until our third series of classes that I asked Sunny to get up and move around the room. He is now working off leash in agility classes, but I still ask that people ignore him.

When you learn how to communicate with your dog using positive reinforcement techniques you not only make it easier to live with your dog, you help the dog gain the skills and confidence it needs to function in a world of potentially scary things. Imagine going to a party where no one spoke your language and practiced bizarre (to you anyway) rituals. (Many people don’t even enjoy going to parties where they DO speak the language of the other guests.) So help your dog out, learn how to teach your dog what certain words or hand signals mean. The world will become a much more predictable, and less frightening places.

Need more encouragement to use reward based training methods? Here’s one of many studies showing that animals learn new skills faster when rewarded for doing the right thing instead of being punished for doing the wrong thing.