Training your Dog: The shift towards a Positive Reinforcement Framework

Training your dog is one of the most important responsibilities that you have as a dog owner. Not only, if done correctly, does it lead to a well behaved K9 companion that is good mannered and keeps themselves of mischief, but it also fosters respectful exchanges between you and your dog, enabling open lines of communication that help to create a positive relationship of trust, confidence and reverence. Let’s face it, a well behaved pooch also makes your life, and the lives of everyone around them, just a whole lot easier; incessant leash pulling, chasing cars, or hovering around the dinner table can not only be frustrating and tedious, but some of these actions can also be dangerous and unsafe – chasing car tyres doesn’t always end nicely.

Over the last 30 years there has been a strong move away from old, punishing forms of training techniques to more of a positive reinforcement framework. Milo Pearsall, writer of a number of published books on dog training and obedience such as “Your Dog, Companion and Helper” and “Dog Obedience Training”, was hailed in 1958 as being a monumental catalyst for the move to more compassionate methods of dog training. However, when you break down Pearsall’s suggestions, he still employed harsh and punishing forms of consequences in order to communicate to the dog that their behaviour or response was not as desired. From measures such as leash snapping as a correction when teaching dogs how to heel, to even suggesting to knee the dog in the chest when it jumps up on people; these actions are far from a gentle approach.

Mary R. Burch, PhD certified Applied Animal Behaviourist and award winning writer and “How Dogs Learn” and “Ethics for Behaviour Analysts”, writes that “by the 1980s, there was a paradigm shift toward more positive methods in dog training. Only 20 years before, many trainers felt that dogs had to be “broken” in order to be trained.”

So what does this move to more of a positive reinforcement framework actually look like? Positive reinforcement teaching uses a non-aggressive and non-confrontational method of communication between you and your dog; you are basically rewarding the dog when they do something favourable and ultimately ignoring them when they act in a way that is undesirable. By continually reinforcing in them that their “good” actions and behaviour result in your “good” actions and behaviour towards them, with repetition over a period of time, it demonstrates and confirms to your dog the kind of behaviour that they need to exhibit in order to be rewarded with your love and compassion.

With previous techniques a dog may have been “punished” when they displayed negative behaviours (such as jumping up onto people), but by employing a positive reinforcement training technique, this behaviour is simply ignored. As time goes on, when you continually only respond and give your positive attention to your pooch when they’re displaying good behaviours, then they’ll no longer be stimulated or want to behave negatively because they have learned that they simply get no response from you when they do.

Stay tuned for the next article where we look into how to train your dog on the basics (such as stay, sit, come, and wait) using a positive reinforcement training method.

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