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Friday, August 1, 2014

The "Best" Training Method

Clients sometimes ask me what the best method is to train a dog.  I don't think they realize just how complicated that issue can be.  First of all, what are we training the dog to do?  Fetch a Frisbee?  Roll over?  Stop chewing on the furniture?  Become housebroken?  Each modification of behavior requires a different process and steps.  Also, some dogs will respond better to one form of training than another, meaning that there is rarely a catch-all "best" method.
That being said, there are some general rules that we can make.  First of all, yelling at or hitting a dog is never appropriate.  Sure, this may sometimes correct the behavior, but you're also teaching the dog to be afraid of you and can create or worsen anxiety issues.  Punishment is actually the least effective method of training.  And dogs don't feel "guilty" about actions as many people may think.  If you come in to find your favorite bunny slippers chewed up and you see your little dog slinking away holding her head down, you may immediately think that they are "guilty" about what they have done.  Not true!  And studies have proven this.  What is really happening is that your dog has learned that when you see torn up slippers you become upset and raise your voice.  So they associate "mess" with "angry owner", and start acting submissive in anticipation of punishment.  The dog actually cannot associate their behavior with punishment unless the correction happens within 20 seconds of the behavior.  Punishing a dog minutes or hours later does not help fix the problem. 
The same time limit applies to rewards.  Let's say that you're trying to housebreak your puppy.  You let the puppy into the yard, where they start sniffing around and exploring.  After a minute or two they go to the bathroom.  Then they sniff around more and finally come to the back door.  At that moment you give them a treat and tell them what a good boy/girl they are.  In our mind we're saying "Good dog for going potty!"  But the dog has essentially forgotten about using the bathroom and the behavior most closely associated with the reward is coming to the door.  So in their mind it is "Good dog for coming to the door!" 
Positive reinforcement has been repeatedly shown to be the best form of training.  Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.  Wait until your dog is doing what you want them to do, or acting in the way you want them to, and reward that behavior immediately (remember, 20 seconds) with praise, attention, or treats.  If you train this way they will continue to seek out whatever it takes to get that reward and should eventually become consistently successful with doing what you want.
Put yourself in your dog's shoes and think about it as if you were an employee and you were dealing with your boss.  If your boss yelled at you whenever you did something wrong, and even threw things at you or hit you, how would you feel?  Would you have learned what to do right?  There is a difference between knowing what not to do and knowing how to do something correctly.  Now switch it around.  What if your boss didn't talk to you much when you messed up, but every time you did something right they personally congratulated you and gave you a candy bar?  Would you want to do the same thing again in the future?
Training dogs, raising children, or managing staff are all surprisingly similar.  I've been able to apply the same principles to each of them, and in all cases rewards and positive reinforcement gives the best results.