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The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

Positive reinforcement dog trainingWhen we find ourselves in a situation that makes us feel uncomfortable, bored, or perhaps unappreciated, what can we do? Usually there are only two options; change the situation or change how we feel about the situation. When COVID came barreling into our lives, there was plenty we needed to change and a lot we had to accept along the way. We grew accustomed to wearing masks, and even had fun with it, we found cute ones that matched our scrubs, others that matched our personalities, and life went on. We had to keep our staff safe, so we went to curbside service. It made our jobs more difficult and tedious, communication was harder, appointments took longer…but we changed our attitudes. We accepted the fact that curbside appointments were keeping us all safe, and we became better at writing our recommendations to clients down so owners had material to reference in the future. Although not ideal, our new way of operating does have some positives.

Pets in a Pandemic

One way many people attempted to change how they felt about the pandemic was by welcoming new pets into their lives. These people took the negative side of the pandemic working from home, schooling from home, limited time spent interacting with outside friends, and limited options for eating out or entertainment into a positive. They realized more time spent at home meant more time for a pet. Less money spent on entertainment meant more financial reserve to take on the responsibility of feeding and caring for a four legged family member. There is rarely a day we do not welcome a new pet into our practice. Some of these new clients are actually first time pet owners. With each new pet owner we try to emphasize the major importance of “keeping things positive,” especially when training and socializing your new friend.

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

There are so many buzz words associated with training, some new, and some old. Some are steeped in stereotypes that have no place given our current knowledge of animal learning and behavior. Yet, there are other words that open minds to the new possibilities for bonding and interacting with your pet that we couldn’t have believed possible two decades ago. One such word that really needs to be eliminated from our vernacular is “dominant” or “alpha.” A new concept we cannot get enough of is “positive reinforcement.” We will explain the theory behind each.

Positive reinforcement dog trainingThe concept of maintaining one’s status as the alpha dog in a household came from research on wolves. Researchers found there seemed to be one particular male and one female in a pack that were the primary breeding animals, and seemed to be the de facto “leaders” other pack members deferred to. Dog trainers latched on to this research extrapolating that perhaps humans should be viewed as pack leaders in order to maintain a harmonious household. Little thought was given to several major issues with this theory: 1) that alpha status was constantly challenged in wolf packs as animals aged or new puppies were born and 2) maintenance of alpha status in wolves was usually through aggressive conflict. Training based on dominance theory was primarily punishment based using, choke or shock collars, alpha rolls, and yelling. Thankfully, opinions are changing, and people are beginning to lose interest in maintaining the balance in their household or attempting to train their pets through aggressive conflict and never-ending challenges.

Our Generation of Dog Training

Dog training and behavior is a constantly evolving science that gleans and repurposes much useful information from the field of learning theory. New training approaches use the theory of operant conditioning, or the idea that behaviors can be shaped by reinforcing or punishing a behavior using four key concepts– positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment. The use of positive reinforcement is perhaps one of the most exciting and hopeful approaches to animal training of our generation.

This approach uses the principles of rewarding behaviors you would like to continue while ignoring undesirable behaviors. For example, we all want our pets to greet us calmly and quietly rather than jumping or pushing us, right? Using principles of positive reinforcement, you will immediately give your puppy a treat for sitting when greeting you, but you will ignore any jumping behavior. Because the puppy is not rewarded for jumping, only sitting, they very soon learn to sit as a primary form of greeting. Sounds much more appealing than yelling, hitting, or pushing your puppy for jumping on you, don’t you agree? Science certainly does. In fact, research suggests that the use of training methods rooted in positive reinforcement reinforces bonds between pets and handlers, and strengthens the trust pets have in their owners.

Fear Free Techniques

At Longwood Veterinary Center, our Fear Free-based handling methods utilize positive reinforcement techniques. We offer treats, praise, and rewards to motivate pets to relax in the exam room, and allow us to examine and medicate them. There is a wealth of information online. Sites such as https://www.clickertraining.com/ and https://drsophiayin.com are excellent places to start. When searching for puppy classes or training help for a mature pet, we have numerous references of local trainers that use positive reinforcement and evidence-based training techniques. Please do not hesitate to contact us today and remember to keep it positive!

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