I’ll be honest: dog training is not that complicated. There is a limited number of tools that every dog owner can learn. The only difference between an experienced dog trainer and an owner is that the trainer is used to spotting opportunities and creative ways of applying the tools. Alright, we, dog trainers, also have experience and theoretical knowledge that allows us to apply our tools to different cases. However, I am convinced that any person can learn to apply the basic tools to their own dog. That is why I would like to share with you the three most important principles of dog training, on which the major part of dog training is based.
The first and the most important tool in dog training is reinforcement – positive reinforcement. It comes in form of verbal praise, play, treats, toys and anything else that your dog considers desirable. Reinforcement is crucial, because it is your only way to communicate to the dog that you like this behaviour. Dogs don’t speak Human, although they are able to associate sounds with behaviours and things. However, the only way to say “I like it” to the dog is to use some kind of reinforcement. Whether you think about it in terms of “explanation” or in terms of plain conditioning, it works. Moreover, it is the most effective thing that works.
Behaviour that is continuously ignored will eventually stop. This is the second basic rule of dog training. Ignoring is far more effective than punishment. If you want to shape your dog behaviour, learn to ignore it. One of the most common mistakes that owners make is negative talk. The only result that saying “don’t do it”, “stop” and “bad dog” is likely to produce is your dog associating you, other dogs and people with negative things. Although most likely there will be no effect at all. First, dogs don’t understand negative concepts. Therefore, if you want to eliminate behaviour A teach your dog to perform behaviour B instead. For example, if your dog jumps around in the kitchen before dinner, teach him to sit by the door, while you prepare his food. Second, as mentioned before, dogs don’t speak Human. Hence, the dog will pick up that you’re angry, but won’t understand why. The “ashamed” reaction most owners see is just a reaction to their negative tone. So, if you want to show your dog that you don’t like something, ignore it.
Often it is worth weighing the amount of resources invested in behaviour modification against the effort of managing environment. To train a dog to do or not to do something takes a lot of time, patience and treats. Sometimes, it is much easier to work with the dog’s environment to avoid undesirable behaviour. In addition, environment modification may just eliminate the cause of the problem. For example, I had a client, whose dog started barking at people he saw behind the window. It was a floor-to-ceiling window near the front door, and the dog’s bed was placed near that window. We could work on reconditioning the dog’s response to people or on using time-outs to teach him not to bark. However, it proved to be easier and much more efficient to move his bed to another corner of the room, where he wouldn’t feel so exposed and insecure. Sometimes you must work with environment, because it is the cause of undesirable behaviour; and sometimes you can use it as a short-cut solution. Anyway, it is one of the basic tools worth considering.
I don’t think that there is a model of canine behaviour to which all owners should aspire. If something works for you and allows you to live comfortably without investing more resources than you would like to invest, than it is your perfect solution. The three bases of dog training are there to help you, but it is your job to find the perfect balance that works for you and your dog.