Positive Reinforcement Training

Once upon a time, it was believed that the best way to train a dog was to tell him over and over, and often harshly, all the things he was doing wrong. If the dog pulled on the leash, a sharp painful jerk was the way to correct this. If the dog jumped on a person, his back paws were stepped on. The belief was that if you showed a dog all the bad things that could happen as a result of an undesirable behavior, that behavior would disappear. Not only did this create unimaginable stress on the dog, most loving owners found these training techniques very stressful.

In the early 1980s, reward-based training was developed. Instead of correcting the wrong behavior, now training involved rewarding the right behaviors. Think how frustrating it can be to be told everything you are doing is wrong (everybody has had a boss like this in their life), yet you are never told ‘good job’. How would you ever know what behaviors to repeat? Instead, if you were told you that you did a great job on project X, you could repeat that same process over and over. Both you and your boss would be much happier.

The most compelling reason to use positive reinforcement training is that it is HUMANE. Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) focuses on telling the dog when they are doing something right and shaping (not forcing) correct behaviours. For example, to teach Sit an owner doesn’t force the dog’s hind to the ground, but rather uses a treat to lure him into a sit. The luring method works better than force because the dog is learning how to shape his own behaviour. Pretty soon, a sit means a reward and thus a frequent, positive behaviour is formed. Because the behaviour has always been associated with good things, the behaviour will often appear on its own with little, if any, prompting from the owner. The only thing the owner has to know for positive reinforcement training to work is what behaviour they want. When they see that desired behaviour, they reward it!

The second most compelling reason to use PRT is that punishment based training can cause very serious, unintended consequences. The most common consequence to punishment training is aggression. How can this happen? When a dog sees another dog in the park, he pulls on his leash because he wants to play with the dog. The pulling dog gets choked, pinched and/or corrected for the pulling. The dog knows he saw another dog and felt pain. This happens over and over until the dog decides he gets hurt every time he sees another dog; therefore, the other dog must be causing his pain. Hence a dog-aggressive dog has been shaped by his owners. This was likely not their intention.

Another reason PRT is more effective than punishment based systems is that it creates an environment where dogs want to learn. PRT focuses on building a mutually respectful relationship between you and your dog. Your dog wants to do the right thing to earn his rewards. In punishment systems, dogs would often shut down from training. I can only imagine after the first ten corrections what a dog must have been thinking “I can’t do anything right so I just won’t do anything at all!”

The Regina Humane Society wants to promote a happy, healthy relationship between you and your pet. We strongly believe that through positive reinforcement training methods, you can achieve a wonderful relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

The Clicker Training Method

A dog’s motivation for its behaviour is based on reward. He jumps on people because people look at him, talk to him and touch him when he jumps up. He runs away because you chase (play with) him. The easiest way to stop his bad behavior is to IGNORE IT and reward the appropriate behavior.

Clicker training is a positive reinforcement communication method. It is easier than standard command- based training. You can clicker train any dog. You can clicker train cats, birds, and other pets as well. Clicker training refers to the sound of a marker signal; the sound of commercially produced plastic clicker. You can also use the springy bubble top of a metal jar lid, snap your fingers or blow a whistle. Whatever the sound, use it repeatedly and consistently when training your dog. For our purposes, we will refer to the sound as a “click”.

• Make a contract. What does the dog want? Food, toys, praise, petting? For now, we will assume the object of desire is food. Keep the treats small, but delicious. Little cubes of wiener work but not a lump of kibble.

• “Click” when the dog does something you want. Choose something easy, that the dog is likely to do on his own (sit, come toward you, lay down, walk next to you).

• “Click” DURING the desired behaviour, not after it is completed. The timing of the click is crucial. Give the treat after that; the timing of the treat is not important.

• Fix bad behaviour by rewarding good behaviour. “Click” and treat for paws on the ground, not on visitors. Instead of scolding for barking, “click” and treat for silence. Cure leash pulling by “clicking” and treating when the leash happens to go slack.

• “Click” for voluntary (or accidental) movements toward your goal. You may coax the dog into a movement or position. This is called “shaping”. If you want to work a little faster than just waiting for him to sit down, you can start molding him into the right position. “Click” and treat when he puts his head back, shifts his weight back, lowers his rear end. Anything that is closer to sitting down than he was a moment before gets “click”/treat. Shape him as you would land a fish, a bit at a time, not being afraid to back up and help him if he thought you were going too fast. Don’t be afraid to sit still and let the dog do the thinking.

• Lure him if you have to. If you want him to sit, for example, hold the treat up to his nose and use it to “pull” his nose up and back until his rear goes down. If you hold the treat too high, he’ll jump up (oops!). If you push back into his mouth instead of raising his nose, he might back up, but he won’t sit. Always try to “catch” him sitting before shaping or luring. When a dog has learned to do something for “clicks”/treats, he will begin showing you the behavior spontaneously, trying to get you to click. Now is the time to offer a cue, like the word “sit” or a hand signal. Start clicking for that behavior if it happens during or after the cue. Start ignoring that behavior when the cue wasn’t given. If your dog does not respond to a cue, he is not “disobeying”, he just hasn’t learned the cue completely.

Common Problems and Some Solutions

• Teach SIT – If the dog sits, even for a moment, click when his bottom hits the ground. Then give him a treat.

• Jumping Up – Owners must remember what a reward to the dog is. He jumps up because people look at him, talk (yell) to him and touch him when he jumps up. The best solution is to ignore your dog when he jumps up, turn your back and look away. If you ignore the dog for jumping up, then he is not rewarded for jumping up. Instead, praise him, give him treats and lavish him with attention whenever he is sitting or has all four feet on the ground.

• Pulling on the Leash – When the dog pulls on the leash, immediately turn and walk the other way. As soon as he is walking by your side, even for just a second as he trots by, “click” and treat him. You are teaching him that he will never get to where he is straining for unless he is walking beside you.

• Mouthing/Gnawing on Your Hands – The dog must learn that he only has someone to play with when he is gentle. Dogs mouth when they have teeth coming in or when they just want to play. Every time the mouthing gets too exuberant, leave the room, therefore ending the game. Puppies learn this behaviour very early on when they play with littermates. He will learn that his playmates leave when he becomes to rough. He will learn to play gently.