Marcy was upset and I could hear her frustration over the
phone. She called me to schedule a private dog training
session with her and her dog Buster. No matter how hard
she worked at it, “He just doesn't listen to me! He
jumps on people, barks at the mail carrier, chews my slippers,
steals things off the counter and chases the cat. My other
dog was never like this! Buster is just plain stubborn and
I think he does things just to spite me.”
These are common complaints voiced by the over 300 families
I see each year. One person says, “He's lazy.”
Another complains, “She's defiant.” The most
common complaint is, “He knows what to do but he's
just being stubborn.” As frustrating as this can be
for us humans, the truth is, it isn't about being disobedient
or defiant or stubborn. The reality is that none of these
dogs really know what they are supposed TO DO.
Positive training isn't about teaching your dog to stop
doing something, but teaching him what you want him TO DO
instead. For example, it isn't how Marcy can get Buster
to stop jumping, it's about teaching Buster to lay down
when people come in the door. It isn't about getting Buster
to stop chewing slippers, it's about teaching Buster to
chew appropriate toys and ignore slippers. If you don't
know what you want your dog to do in any given situation,
your dog won't be able to figure it out either. So it's
all about first picturing what you want your dog TO DO,
not what you want him to stop doing.
Let's say you want your dog to sit and stay when a squirrel
runs through the yard or the mail carrier comes up the walk
or someone walks in the door. These are pretty powerful
distractions! In essence, you have to be more attractive
than any of them. Let's face it, these distractions are
worth the equivalent of $10,000 to your dog—and you're
worth squat. Therefore, in order to get your dog to do what
you want, you need to become worth more than these distractions
and teach your dog in baby steps.
Positive reinforcement means using rewards for behaviors
you want your dog to do and repeat. When your dog performs
the sit behavior for example, reward him. Give him a treat
every time he puts his behind on the floor, and there's
a good chance he'll keep putting his behind on the floor.
Start the training process in a non-distracting environment
and gradually add more challenging distractions until he
reliably stays in a sit position even with a squirrel running
by. The key is to have realistic expectations of what is
possible for your particular dog and simply progress from
kindergarten to a college level of reliability.
To do this, we use two simple methods:
The Magnet Game : Simply wait for the behavior to occur,
then let the dog know that what he just did thrilled you
to no end by rewarding him with praise, a scratch behind
the ear, and especially treats. In essence, the “sit”
behavior attracted the treats, just like a magnet attracts
Step-by-step training a/k/a “School” : Use a
visual prompt such as food, a favorite toy, or other object
to lure the dog to do what you want, then praise and reward.
Gradually add more distractions. By the way, your dog will
have to be at a “college” level of “sit/stay”
to be successful with a squirrel running by.
The difference between the two is that in Method 1, you
don't ask for the beahvior but reward your dog whenever
it happens to occur. For example, you're watching television
and you see your dog sit on her bed. You then say “good
dog” and throw her a treat. In the second method,
you are asking for the behavior and then rewarding her.
Both methods are used throughout the day until the dog realizes
a certain beahvior (like “sit”) is always worth
Using Treats in the Training Process
But does that mean you always have to use treats? Absolutely
not. Once an association is made, you simply begin to reward
your dog on variable reward schedule until eventually treats
are unnecessary. In human terms, think of a Las Vegas slot
machine. At first you put money in the slot machine just
for fun. But once in a while you actually win. That occasional
jackpot keeps you playing. It's the same with positive training.
At first your dog gets a treat every time he sits, then
you gradually wean him off treats but he'll continue to
sit because every once in a while he'll get a jackpot. Of
course he's still being praised and petted so his interest
always remains high. We recommend using high quality treats
like chicken, turkey, cheese, pieces of dry kibble, etc.
Stay away from greasy foods and commercial dog training
treats that list ingredients like by-products, artificial
coloring or additives, wheat, corn, and sugar.
You can shape virtually any behavior you want. All you
need to do is: 1) Catch your dog doing something and reward
him in the act (The Magnet Game); and 2) Teach your dog
what you want him to do step-by-step (School).
It's just a matter of being consistent, communicating in
clear terms what you want your dog to do and managing your
environment so your dog can't get into trouble while the
training is taking place.
If your dog is aggressive or has moderate-to-severe behavioral
problems, a professional trainer is needed. Always err on
the side of safety. You can learn a lot about positive dog
training from books and DVDs. However, it can be fun to
join a group class. Because many dog trainers still teach
methods that include physical force, I suggest interviewing
the trainer before hiring him or her. You can find a trainer
who uses positive training methods through the Association
of Pet Dog Trainers (www.APDT.com ) or The National Association
of Dog Obedience Instructors ( www.NADOI.org ).