Positive Puppy Training for a Happy, Obedient Puppy
I think it’s great that you recognize that training is important because, unless we teach our pets what we expect, we could end up with a lifetime of frustrated humans and confused dogs. That’s why I get so excited about sharing the best approach to training your dog or a new puppy – a method we call positive puppy training.
What Is Positive Dog Training?
There are a lot of different ways to train a dog, and training concepts have really changed over the years. What used to be a standard way of training has now evolved into different methods that are more effective and more in line with how dogs think and learn. With more research into the canine brain, we really are finding new and better ways to connect with our dogs, in a way that works better for them and for us.
Positive puppy training uses a practical and effective relationship-based approach to teach your puppy new skills and desired behaviors using positive reinforcement training and fun training games so your puppy learns without fear, force, or punishment.
It involves using rewards to help your dog understand how you define “good behavior” and when he or she did a good job. This encourages the dog to repeat the skill or behavior and helps your pup learn the cues or words you use to ask for that behavior.
Does Positive Dog Training Work?
Absolutely! Positive reinforcement is an effective motivator for humans as well as dogs. Does getting a paycheck motivate you to go to work? For most people, it does. And positive puppy training works in a similar way for your puppy. Because you’ve made it fun and rewarding to do this behavior, your puppy is likely to do it again, even without you asking and definitely when you ask. Positive puppy training is the most effective way to ensure you have a well-behaved dog.
I believe that dogs learn best from positive reinforcement because positive reinforcement:
- Helps your dog build stronger relationships with you and your family members
- Helps humans better understand the basic needs of the dog
- Helps your dog develop a longer-lasting skill set
- Makes learning fun
For example, my dog, Pickles, is very excited when new people come to the door. And jumping is a dog’s innate (or natural) behavior to express excitement, so without training, he would naturally jump all over them. I don’t think my guests want that. Even if they don’t care, I don’t want it. So I’ve taught Pickles to sit when new people come in the door.
Once he is sitting, I encourage my guests to interact with him. We’ve worked on this so much that now Pickles naturally sits anytime someone new is in the house, and he’d like some attention from them. Who am I kidding? He will sit any time he wants attention, even from me! This is now his way of saying, “Give me some lovins, Mom.” I think you’ll admit it’s a great behavior.
This is an example of positive reinforcement – Pickles sits, he gets attention, which is rewarding to him, and we are both happy. There is no fear, no intimidation, and no punishment for jumping.
Conversely, examples of negative reinforcement include:
- Telling your dog, “No jumping! Bad dog! Down! Off!” with an angry or harsh tone of voice.
- Using a slip lead or choke chain and holding it very tightly so that if he jumps, he experiences pain or discomfort.
Negative reinforcement is ineffective because it doesn’t teach Pickles what I want him to do. Instead, it causes him to feel pain and fear. That just feels so wrong to me – to punish the dog for a natural behavior when I haven’t taught him what I’d prefer him to do instead.
How to Positively Train Your Dog
Step 1: Encourage the Desired Behavior
When first teaching this skill, I had to capture the moment that Pickles was doing the right thing. Or if he didn’t do it automatically, I would use an incentive (training treat) to lure him into the position.
Step 2: Immediately Reward the Desired Behavior
Once he did the right thing, sitting, he got a treat.
It is vital to provide the reward immediately, so your dog associates the reward with the behavior. This ensures that your pup will learn to repeat this behavior when you provide the cue or word.
I use training treats at first because dogs are naturally motivated by food. Dog treats are a really strong and memorable message that good things happen when he does that action. To be effective, it is essential that the incentive you choose is something that your puppy likes a lot and doesn’t get all the time. That’s why we start with training treats.
Step 3: Repeat (Practice)
Just as it takes practice for you to learn a new skill or develop a healthy habit, it takes practice for your puppy to learn a new skill or behavior. The more frequently you help your puppy practice the new behavior with consistent positive reinforcement, the faster your puppy will learn.
Over time, this behavior will become very automatic. Much like you or me buckling on our seatbelts when we get in a car. Pickles has developed muscle memory for sitting when he’s excited or when he’d like some attention. Pickles does a lot of sitting. He’s got a deep well for attention!
Step 4: Replace Training Treats with Other Incentives Once the Behavior Is Established
Now that the behavior is well established, I don’t give him treats every time he sits. Instead, he gets the attention he’s asking for in the form of petting, eye contact, and verbal praise, and of course, I usually talk to him because he’s just too cute not to have a conversation with. Pickles thinks these things are plenty rewarding!
If you’ll notice what I said, I began teaching this skill using treats, but now I don’t use them anymore. I still use treats for other skills, especially if they are harder or require a lot of self-control.
In my online course, I have a whole lesson about when and where to wean off treats. But I caution you not to think of treats as something you’ll want to completely do away with. If you have a job, you probably expect that paycheck at the end of the pay period. It’s important to pay our dogs for a job well done, as well. You can use pieces of kibble for some of the skills that require a lot of treats and save the really tasty high-calorie treats for the training sessions. That helps to make sure you don’t overfeed your dog.
Positive Puppy Training: What NOT To Do
Can I go on a rant for just one minute? Have you seen these popular videos on social media of the owners shaming their dogs when they’ve done something “naughty?”
I know, I know, they are supposed to be funny, but to a trainer's brain, and even to your dog, they really aren’t funny at all.
Shaming or Scolding
I could go on and on about these methods, but for now, I just want to make a few points.
The dog doesn't know what he’s done wrong.
If he’s looking like he’s sorry or guilty, he’s simply reacting to the tone of voice and body language. He’s actually offering up an appeasement behavior to try to get you to calm down. He doesn’t even know what you are saying, why you are acting that way, or that he engaged in unwanted behavior.
The owner is misreading the dog’s body language and humanizing the dog’s emotions.
This dog is not showing shame. He’s showing fear and confusion because of the owner's body language and tone of voice. A fearful, confused dog is not learning and can’t perform the behavior you want.
It’s the human’s fault that the dog did something wrong.
If you leave a dog alone and he gets into the trash or the toilet paper or the pantry, that’s on the human, not the dog. Normal dog behavior is to hunt, forage and scavenge. So when your puppy does these things, he’s acting like a normal, healthy dog.
If you want to keep your home protected from these types of activities, use a crate so the dog will rest and relax while you’re gone. You can’t blame a dog for being curious and exploring; that’s a natural behavior.
You might have heard of some techniques or tools that promise to immediately fix whatever problem you are having, like E-collars (a.k.a. “shock collars”), prong collars, coins in a can, air horns, and others. These techniques are neither effective nor beneficial for the dog because they do not reinforce the desired behavior or strengthen the human-canine bond, and they may actually cause harm or turn your puppy into a reactive dog.
Instead, these methods use fear or intimidation to modify dog behavior. And these can actually create other problems. For example, if you use noise as punishment, you’re going to have a dog who struggles with things in his or her environment like:
- the vacuum cleaner,
- the garbage truck,
- the blender,
- your hair dryer,
- and important dog grooming tools like clippers and nail grinders.
Do you really want a dog that’s afraid to go to the groomer or barks and growls every time you blow dry your hair or run the vacuum?
Another popular theory you may have seen on TV is the “Alpha” or “pack mentality.” This approach to dog training – known as the dominance theory – teaches owners that they must establish themselves as the leader of their “pack” to make their dogs submit to the things they want them to do. It incorrectly assumes that dogs are in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy, and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female hold the contenders in check.
It is based on an observation of adult wolves from different families in captivity forced to live within an unnatural close proximity to one another – which contemporary dog behavior experts say is like trying to understand human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. After observing these captive wolves, the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf who rules the pack.
It is important to know that the dominance theory has been debunked. It does not hold true for wolves in the wild or for domesticated dogs.
A Final Thought About Positive Puppy Training
Before we wrap up today, I want to go over one final topic that I get asked about a lot – it even comes up a lot in my Facebook group – Clicker Training.
Here’s the thing about clicker training: there’s nothing inherently positive or negative about the clicker. To the dog, it’s just another noise, like the ice maker dropping ice or the sound of the heater turning on.
What makes clicker training effective is a process called “loading.” This means you associate the clicker with good things, like treats. You associate the clicker with treats so much that the sound takes on a meaning of its own.
Once you’ve established the clicker as a positive thing, you can use it for puppy training. Think of it like taking a picture at the moment the dog is doing the behavior you want to see more of.
A clicker is a great tool, but the timing has to be precise. For example, when you want your dog to repeat a very specific action. I use the clicker with all my dogs, but it does take some practice, and you want to make sure all family members are on the same page when to use it. We’ve seen several students use it incorrectly, and it quickly becomes a negative instead of a positive for their dogs.
So if you’re thinking of using the clicker for training, it’s important that you first learn how to use it correctly; otherwise, it won’t be an effective tool for you.
Learn more about how to get started with positive puppy training.
About the trainer
After spending 20 years helping families with their dogs face to face as a professional dog trainer, Michele realized that so much of what she knows could be shared with families everywhere - in a way that actually works. People sometimes think their dog is just SUPER difficult because the advice they’ve gotten was incomplete, confusing or just wrong. So she set out to help. Michele loves training dogs because of the impact that it has on the families she gets to help. The peace and joy they get from being able to enjoy their dog LISTENING. Besides teaching classes, helping private clients and running seminars, Michele is also a foodie and fantasizes about being a food critic or secret shopper for restaurants. Talk to her about food and your instant best friends.