Whether you’re trying to teach an old dog new tricks or simply looking for the best method of dog training for your new puppy you’re almost certain to find that different experts offer conflicting advice, there are lots of different dog training methods.
This is confusing for you as an owner, and if you allow yourself to be swayed in lots of different directions you’re going to confuse your dog. To bring some clarity to all of the different ideas it helps to come back to basics:
Dog Obedience Training is Either about ‘Do’ or ‘Don’t’
You and your dog will be happier if there are certain things he doesn’t do: Pulling on the lead, displaying aggression towards people or other animals, baking incessantly, jumping up at you as a greeting or peeing in the house are all examples of things most owners would rather their dogs didn’t do.
Your dog will be safer if there are certain things he does do: sitting on command and returning when called are two prime examples.
Dog Training Methods Focus on Reward or Punishment
You might assume that ‘reward good behaviour and punish bad’ is an obvious route to go, it’s more complex than that. In particular the definition of what counts as punishment is not straightforward.
Punishment can be:
Positive punishment: The classic example would be ‘rubbing the puppy’s nose in it’ as a method of toilet training, modern variants include electric collars that give a (mild) shock to a dog when it barks. Smacking, other physical reprimands, or even shouting at a dog all fall under the category of positive punishment. This is our least favoured method of training, for a whole variety of reasons:
- It’s not much fun, for you or your dog….you didn’t choose to have a pet so that you could be shouting or hitting
- Positive punishment is very stressful for dogs and there’s good evidence to suggest that stress is one of the major causes of bad or undesired behaviour, particularly aggression.
There may be points where positive punishment can be used by an inexperienced trainer. A sharp ‘no’ when your puppy accidentally nips you is a reasonable response. If you follow this up with the negative punishment (see below) of withdrawing attention it will be more effective yet. In our opinion most other methods of positive punishment should only be considered when other techniques have failed and then generally only with the assistance of an expert dog trainer.
Negative punishment: Negative punishment means taking away something your dog wants when he does something you don’t want him to. One common example of negative punishment is ignoring a dog when it jumps up. Maybe you’ve seen the approved stance, arms crossed and head to the sky….This is a method of punishment that the Balham Doggy Centre Team feel much more comfortable with. Your dog loves you and wants your approval, withdrawing your attention is a great way to get your message across.
According to Anna, a passionate dog lover and founder of Puphow, punishment during playtime is a great example. “Withdrawing a dog from a playtime with other dogs, or stopping playing with them yourself when they get too rough are all examples of negative punishment.”, she adds.
Negative Reinforcement: This is where the language of dog training gets confusing. Negative reinforcement means doing something your dog doesn’t like until he does what you want him to. One common example of this is a method of lead training which is sometimes called ‘be a tree’; when your dog pulls, you stop walking, this puts strain on the lead and your dog isn’t going where he wants to. The moment your dog stops pulling you start moving again. This is a training method which can have its place and it’s less fraught with danger than positive punishment methods.
Rewarding good behaviours is also sometimes referred to as positive reinforcement. There’s growing evidence that this is by far the most effective method of dog skills development. You’re almost certainly aware of some of the more common methods of positive reinforcement. Holding out a treat when you want your dog to sit and giving the reward the moment he does is a good example of positive reinforcement. It’s not just food treats that can be rewards, your attention is also a reward, an approving tone, a belly rub or a game are all great ways of showing your dog that he’s been a good boy and they’re much less fattening than doggy treats! Different breeds and different dogs will respond to different rewards. Your ‘food orientated’ Labrador will learn anything for a tasty morsel, for your terrier a tug game is doggy paradise, your collie will love it if you throw the stick or let him round you up!
The stronger your bond the easier it will be to train your dog: remember, he loves you, he wants your approval and he’ll do just about anything that gets it!
Consistency: It’s as important for dogs as it is for children. Always use the same command for the same desired outcome and make certain that your body language and your words are saying the same thing. Make sure that all the people involved in training your dog are using the same approaches.
Timing is everything: Rewards must be immediate, your dog has very little memory so for him to make the connection between what he did and what you did the two must be immediately linked.
Keep training sessions short: 15 minutes at maximum.
Keep sessions fun: Build up to complex dog obedience in little steps, go back to things your dog does know how to do when he’s getting frustrated at not understanding something new. Always end the session on a high and never try to train your dog when you’re tired, angry or frustrated.
If you’re getting stuck, do seek advice. Your dog carer may be able to give advice or suggestions they do all have training. If things are getting really problematic ask your vet about dog training experts in your area.