Positive Reinforcement - Training Basics

We all dream of the perfect dog who never has "accidents" on the carpet, fetches our morning paper, and lets us know if Timmy fell down the well (again). No matter how many of us think this is just a dream, we can have a well-behaved dog with a little time and patience. Training can make our pets behave well at home, help with medical exams at the vet, protect our pets by establishing proper behaviors, and most importantly, give us valuable time to bond with our pets.

It is important to remember a few things about the canine mentality while beginning a training regime. First, dogs are creatures of habit. You have to establish a consistent behavior/consequence sequence for dogs to be able to know what to do. After each time your dog performs the "good" behavior – going to the bathroom outside, sitting, doing a triple back flip – let him know it was good. A scratch behind the ears, happy praise, or a training treat tells him it was a good thing. If you say "triple back flip" and he does a double twisting front flip, ignore it. It wasn't what you wanted (even if it would be pretty impressive). You want to reward the proper response to cues.

If you are trying to house-train your dog, feed him at a consistent time every day and take him outside at a consistent time every day. Soon he'll expect this and will know that's when he's supposed to go to the bathroom. Saying a specific word or phrase every time will help teach him as well. Every time you take him outside, saying "potty time" or another set phrase will tie in what he's supposed to do if you reward him for doing it. Soon, you'll be able to say "potty time" and he'll automatically go outside, do his thing, and look for his reward.

Dogs also have a social hierarchy. You don't have to be the "alpha dog" but you do have to get your dog's respect – not fear! Never reprimand a dog with a violent reaction like hitting or kicking. This will only teach them to fear you, not that the behavior they were doing is wrong. Most professionally trained animals, from circus dogs to dolphins to cats on television commercials, are rewarded for their "tricks". This methodology is called positive reinforcement and can easily be applied to your own training, no matter what you might be trying to train.

Positive reinforcement rewards a good behavior with a special treat, like food or attention, and ignores a bad behavior. This doesn't mean you should ignore your dog chewing up your favorite pair of shoes in front of you. A sharp verbal reprimand will usually get him to stop, then you can lead him to his own chew toys and reward him in a "good" tone of voice for chewing on his own things. Think about your experience at school or work – hearing "no!" all the time only makes you upset and depressed but getting a reward because you've done a good job would make you want to do it again and again.

Proper training can mean the difference between your dog running into the road after a squirrel and "Stay!"-ing at your feet instead. The most important part of the training is not the intelligence of your dog – it's your own ability to be consistent and persistent. Keep trying and you'll be able to train most dogs in no time!