If I had to name the single-most important element of dog training, I’d have to say it’s “motivation.”
Figuring out why your dog does (or doesn’t) do a particular thing is important. Finding out what your dog values greatly, and then coming up with ways to grant those resources only as a reward for behavior you like is arguably even more important.
In some cases, figuring out what your dog would prefer to avoid, and then making it clear that performing (or refraining from) a certain behavior makes it possible to avoid that consequence may also play a role.
While some trainers insist on being all positive all the time, others are quick to use the possibility of unpleasant consequences as a motivator. Personally, I subscribe to the LIMA approach: “Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive.”
I prefer to start by making it easy for the dogs I work with to make good choices (providing generous rewards for desirable behaviors) while using management tools and techniques to limit their opportunities to make choices I won’t be happy with. “Be the good guy 95 percent of the time,” I always tell my students.
If punishment is appropriate at all, I advise my students to use it sparingly and with great caution for the remaining 5 percent of the time.
There are a couple of reasons I subscribe to this approach.
I find that people and their dogs develop a stronger bond when their relationship is built on trust and positive associations rather than on scolding and other unpleasant experiences. In addition, I don’t feel that it is fair or effective to jump straight to punishment in most circumstances, and in some situations, the use of aversives is never advisable.
If we punish dogs for certain behaviors without first introducing them to other possible behavior choices, I find that dogs are more likely to shut down and become generally unresponsive or to escalate into a tantrum out of frustration. On the other hand, if we teach dogs a range of desirable behaviors while providing ample positive reinforcement for doing these behaviors, and then we allow them to experiment with undesirable behaviors that yield no reward or possibly even negative consequences, I find that our canine students learn to choose behaviors we like more readily.
That brings us to the use of consequences to fuel a dog’s motivation to do (or not do) certain behaviors. What is your dog willing to work for?
• Access to certain people, animals, places, things or activities?
Reward-based training isn’t necessarily all about treats, although food is one strong motivator for a great majority of dogs. I urge my students to follow the policy of “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF), getting their dogs to perform “good” behaviors in order to earn anything in life they value which their humans can control access to.
Does your dog get excited when you pick up the leash? Don’t do it for free! Use the situation as a training opportunity: ask your dog to do something for you or wait until your dog is spontaneously performing a behavior you like, then make it seem like doing that behavior caused you to pick up the leash (even though you were preparing to take your dog for a walk anyway).
If your dog gets overly enthusiastic when the kids come home, don’t let your kids give your dog attention for free. Instead, make a game out of it for everyone involved. Keep your dog tethered or behind a gate, and have the children take one baby step towards the dog every time the dog looks away, turns away, sniffs the ground, sits, lies down—or does any other calmer behavior. This game may take a long time the first few times you play it, but in time, your dog will get the message that the most effective way to get young people to come play is to just stay calm.
Punishment is a much trickier thing to give general advice about because there are so many things that can go wrong with it. When possible, it’s best to stick with the “take away” method. If your dog misbehaves in a social situation, use a time-out to a safe “unfun zone.” Social isolation is painful for most dogs. If your dog snatches at the treat in your hand before you offer it, just put it back in your pocket for a while before you try again.
When using a scary noise (including your voice) to startle a dog as a punishment, or when using any other aversive, you have to be careful that there’s nothing else in the environment that your dog might associate the punishment with.
For example, if you rattle a noisy can filled with stones to startle your dog for digging a hole in your lawn at the precise moment a boy wearing a backpack whizzes past your yard on a skateboard, your dog might end up with a superstitious fear of boys, backpacks and skateboards as well as hole-digging if your dog hasn’t already formed strong enough positive associations with these other stimuli. You might effectively instill in your dog the motivation to refrain from digging, but you might also give your dog motivation for barking or growling at boys, people carrying backpacks and/or skateboarders.
It is never a good choice to use an aversive consequence on a dog that is anxious. If you punish a dog for barking at a child when the dog is barking to ask for space, for instance, you might effectively instill the motivation to remain quiet around children, but you may also intensify the negative emotions that caused the dog to bark in the first place. That might make the dog’s anxiety worse during future encounters with children. If the dog loses the option of barking to communicate that it needs space around children and a child does something that is finally more than the dog can take, the dog may quietly escalate to a more serious warning than barking— perhaps a growl or even a bite.
It’s always safe to start out with setting your dog up for success by limiting opportunities to make mistakes while providing lots of ways to make good choices, and then making it seem to your dog that making the choices you like causes great things to happen for them. Be the good guy first; be the good guy most of the time. If you feel that punishment might be a necessary part of your dog training program, consult a professional trainer or behaviorist for guidance just to be safe.