THE BENEFITS OF POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Sunny was a 12-week-old Golden Retriever puppy whose owners had called me in a panic. Their veterinarian had told them that the pup was dangerously dominant and that they needed to put him in his place now or he would grow up to be an aggressive adult. The vet had told them to use the scruff shake and alpha roll on Sunny. Now Sunny was growling and snapping at them. They were terrified of their 3-month-old puppy—and he was terrified of them! When I did an in-home consultation with them, I found a normal Golden Retriever puppy whose personality leaned toward the assertive end of the temperament range. Sunny was just confused and frightened of his owners, who had suddenly turned unpredictably dangerous. The little pup thought he was fighting for his life. As soon as his owners stopped forcing and punishing Sunny and started showing him what they wanted (and rewarding him for it), he eagerly responded. Positive trainers believe that it is our challenge, as the supposedly more intelligent species, to get our dogs to voluntarily offer us the behaviors we want without the use of force. When they offer the desired behavior, we reward it, thereby increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. Eventually, we can put the behavior on cue so our dogs will offer it when we ask for it. Finally, when the behavior is rock-solid, we can reduce or phase out the use of food as a reward. The question, then, is this: Would you rather hurt your dog to train him— or feed him treats? Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, for years trainers have told owners that you couldn’t train dogs using food. If you train with treats, they declared, your dog would only work when there were treats present or when he was hungry. Both of these claims were wrong. People have been sold a whole philosophy of dog training that says dogs are power-hungry dictators who will take over your household if you don’t force them into submission. Heaven forbid you allow your dog on the furniture. Next thing you know, old-fashioned trainers would have you believe, you’ll be sleeping on the floor while your dog stretches out on the comforter in the master bedroom! My own dogs are allowed on the furniture, and they are permitted to sleep on the bed. And they haven’t taken over the house yet.

We’ve been told that our dogs should do what they are told because they know they have to and because they love us. They need to know they don’t have a choice—they have to do what we say or bad things happen. This is just plain bunk. First of all, your dog always has a choice. Plenty of force-trained dogs choose not to do as they are told and are willing to suffer the consequences. If punishment worked all that well, you’d never have to punish your dog more than once. In fact, one of the keys to effective punishment is that it must work with just one or two applications. If you have to punish your dog for the same behavior over and over, you are just teaching the dog to tolerate punishment, and you will have to punish him harder and harder for it to have any effect. Ongoing punishment is abusive. The majority of dogs you see in today’s obedience competitions are compulsion trained, at least to some degree. Fortunately this situation is changing. If you’ve ever watched an obedience trial, you’ve seen plenty of those compulsion-trained dogs choosing not to do what they are told. Of course, if any trainer tells you she can make your dog 100 percent reliable, run away fast and find another trainer. Dogs are not machines—they are living, thinking creatures. We humans—the supposedly more intelligent species—are not 100 percent reliable. We make mistakes. Should our dogs have the right to bite us on the ankle when we do? Of course not. But then why on earth should we have both the right to expect our dogs to be perfect and claim the right to hurt them when they are not? Like us, our dogs have good days and bad. Sometimes they’re tired or in pain and can’t do what we ask. Sometimes they are easily distracted, and sometimes they’d just rather play their own games than ours.