Over the next few weeks, we’re going to delve into the realm of dog behavior training basics. Our goal is to help your dog reach his full potential as a perfectly behaved canine. In this post, we’re going to talk about how you yourself should behave around your dog. In essence, before teaching your dog, you have to first teach yourself.
When thinking about Dog Behavior Training, we usually are only interested in what we want the dog to do, whether it’s a behavioral problem such as jumping on people, or if it’s something we ‘want’ him to do, such as learning tricks. But we don’t think about “why” our dog is doing what he’s doing. Why is he jumping on people? Why doesn’t he sit when I tell him to? Why doesn’t he come when I call him? Why doesn’t he walk beside me without pulling?
There’s not one simple answer for these questions. Each dog is unique, and each may exhibit similar behaviors, but for different reasons. If we can pin-point the reason behind the dog’s behavior, we can fix it.
So let’s begin with a foundational rule, a rule that we’ll base everything else on.
Dog Behavior Training Rule: Dogs act towards reward
In essence, the rule means that a dog will do something if he is being rewarded for it. Its opposite is true as well; a dog will cease to do something if he is not being rewarded for it. You might think, “well wait a second, how is this true? My dog does all sorts of things that I don’t want him to do, and I don’t give him treats for it!” A reward doesn’t always mean a treat. A reward is anything that makes your dog happy. A dog wants to be happy. If he is not happy, he’ll find a way to be happy. Unfortunately, this sometimes makes us not very happy.
Let me give you an example. My dog likes to chase squirrels. Why does he chase squirrels? He doesn’t chase squirrels out of duty to his master, who—at any given moment—may be attacked by these furry fuzzballs. No, he chases squirrels because chasing squirrels makes him happy; he enjoys it. It’s fun.
So when he runs off and chases a squirrel, how do we—the responsible wise compassionate owners—respond? Typically, we yell for him to come back, give ultimatums, threaten, etc. And when the neighbors have had their chuckle, you stomp over to your dog, grab him by the collar, and drag him back in the house where you yell at him some more.
Okay, so let’s analyze this for just a second. We know the reason why the dog ran after the squirrel: because that’s his reward. Why didn’t he come when he was called? Because he recognized the tone of voice, the tone that’s used whenever he’s grabbed by the collar and shoved into a corner. There’s absolutely no way that he would come to someone that’s going to punish him.
Let’s look at another example. Your dog regularly jumps up on people, especially guests. You would rather her not do this, because last time your (former) boss and his wife visited, your chocolate lab made a tear the size of a ruler in her evening coat. Now, why does your dog jump? Think back to when she was a puppy, just 12 months before. She was so cute then, staggering about on her little puppy paws, following you around, hopping up to put her paws on your knees while you watched TV. You smiled and petted her, told her how cute she was.
That’s the reward. As a puppy, she knew that every time she hopped up on to you, you would smile and pet her. Then she grew, and suddenly it’s very wrong for her to jump up and get petted.
So what do these two examples teach us? First of all, we have to recognize rewards. Rewards aren’t just treats. A reward is anything that makes your dog happy. A dog lives for reward, and acts towards reward. Recognizing how your dog responds to reward is fundamental for dog behavior training. Secondly, we have to recognize the way we discipline our dog. Yelling and screaming doesn’t do a single thing. It either just pushes your dog further away, or it teaches your dog to ‘only’ do what you want when your yelling (thus you have to yell before your dog does what you want).
How do you get a well behaved dog? Reward him only for the behavior you want. Take away reward for the behavior you do not want. We will talk about this rule constantly throughout our series of posts on Dog Behavior Training, a series that will deal with dog training basics.
—In the next post on Dog Behavior Training basics, we’ll talk about Operant Conditioning and Clicker Training, and show you a fun game to play with your friends and family to teach each other how to train using the clicker!