Archive for June, 2009

posted by Michel on Jun 16

As an avid cat-lover, I lacked the theoretical and practical knowledge to deal with the many stray dogs that we encounter in our animal welfare business. Until recently that is! My current employers allowed me to take a couple of courses in dog training, starting with the ethology of dogs module, followed by the dog training instructor module so that now I am fully certified!!! I took the course at Quiebus whose web site unfortunately is only in Dutch.

Course mate Nicky demonstrating the Look! command

Course mate Nicky demonstrating the "Look!" command

Both modules provided INVALUABLE information into how a dog’s mind works and these courses should really be attended by all sincere dog owners. Surprisingly enough perhaps, in many ways a dog thinks the same as we do and it is this character trait that we use when training them using positive reinforcement. Like us, dogs react very well to compliments and rewards but strongly resent being punished, the latter causing them to feel scared or even angry. So what do you think is the best strategy for getting a dog to learn the behaviour that you, the owner, wants? Reward or punishment? Simple really, isn’t it? And for those who feel a dog should learn all these tricks and perform them over and over again only for love of the owner, I would ask to consider how long you’d be willing to work for a boss who doesn’t pay up at the end of the month …

How does this work in practise? Well, a full dog training course is hard to summarise in just a few words and even though “positive reinforcement” will give you many results on an Internet search, theories differ. In our case it means that we use ONLY positive associations and avoid using force. E.g. when you want to teach the dog to sit, take a treat (small piece of sausage or cheese, use your dog’s favourite) between thumb and index finger with a closed fist, hold treat in front of the dog’s nose and slowly move the treat over the nose to the dog’s forehead and over the head. The dog will follow the treat with his or her nose and eventually assume the sit position. Once the dog grasps the idea, say the command “Sit!” in a gentle and PLEASING way and Bob is your proverbial uncle! Important is that you don’t force the dog’s hind quarters down by pushing, since that gives unpleasant associations. We want to be positive remember!

There are a few general priciples you can follow:

  • Learn the meaning of dog-language, in effect the way they communicate with each other (it’s a lot more complex than you’d think!) by reading a few books, especially on how they communicate dominance, fear, confidence etc. This will help you interpreting your dog’s behaviour while training.
  • Start associating a word of praise (“Good!”, “Good boy!”, “Well Done!” or whatever) with you giving the treat, so that in due time you can cut down on the number of treats. It’s a good idea to still keep giving treats every now and then.
  • Once the dog knows your word of praise, use it AS SOON AS the dog shows the behaviour you want, the treat may be delayed a little.
  • Use the dog’s name only for positive things, like calling for attention, NEVER in an angry voice for punishment.
  • Reward good behaviour, ALWAYS and that very moment! This means that when you call your dog and he doesn’t come right away, don’t punish him for not coming, but REWARD for the fact that he did show up in the end! (yes, I know this is hard).
  • Similarly, when you find your house in ruins after you return and having left the dog alone, DON’T punish the dog! (yes, I know this is even harder). He will associate your arrival with your angry response while he was so happy to see you again. Simply prevent the dog from being able to tear into your couch by using a bench, a nice warm spot in the garage or whatever.
  • When you must “correct” behaviour, use dog-language only instead of meaningless (but unpleasant)  human methods like slapping or shouting, which will only serve to teach your dog to be scared of and avoid you. Dominant gestures (e.g. hand over nose, hand on shoulder, leaning over the dog) are a good means of conveying your message in a way he understands and by his nature, accepts.
  • Use dominant gestures only when you have to.
  • Like with praise, a correction must come AT THE VERY MOMENT that the dog is engaged in the behaviour you do not approve of. Any later and the effect will be zilch, nada, niente!
  • Refrain from using dog collars that have pins or other dog unfriendly attributes: they are unnecessary from a training point of few and only serve to instill fear in your dog, which complete opposes your training efforts. Even gentle-leaders and the like are a bit suspect but still way better than the spikey collars.
  • Make sure that you, the owner, are the fun-loving, friendly and enthusiastic leader that a dog will always love to come back to!

Having said all this, there’s no substitute for learning all this for yourself together with your own dog, so please do go attend a good course on dog-friendly positive reinforcement techniques or buy a few books on the matter.

Have fun!

Training should be fun for ALL!

Training should be fun for ALL!