A Closer Look at Positive Reinforcement Training
As many of us sit at home in quarantine during the pandemic, we are left with free time. What a wonderful time to spend with your dog and train! Many of us partake in training classes throughout the year, however now we are left on our own. All experts know in order to master any new skill, it takes patience, consistency, and practice. In light of our new found spare time, I thought it may be of interest to share a little about positive reinforcement dog training.
Positive reinforcement training is a method where we work to teach, capture and reward the desired behavior. When using this technique, we are allowing our dog to use their brains. This is a method where both you and your dog will not feel defeated or frustrated. In essence we work to obtain the desired behaviors, while avoiding the undesired ones.
After completing Victor's Canadian Grand Championship in Conformation, I decided I wanted to work towards putting a title behind his name. As a Standard Wire-haired Dachshund Victor has high drive and an eagerness to please. Hence, I decided we would try out the world of agility. We signed up for classes with NADA (Newfoundland Athletic Dog Association) and within several weeks, we successfully completed the Foundations Course. Given the pandemic, we were then left to train on our own. Before we commenced, I turned to a friend who is well versed in many methods of dog training: Jennie Murphy (A Rock Solid Dog). Jennie had been my Foundations Course Instructor at NADA, so I thought I would ask her for some training insight and tips.
(Jennie Murphy is the founder of A Rock Solid Dog. She is a Certified Behavior Adjustment Trainer, Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, Certified Controlled Unleashed Instructor, Canine Games Theory Certification, and Fun Scent Games Coordinator.)
Training with Victor has allowed me to learn quite a bit about myself and my understanding of dogs. Engaging with Victor has certainly grown our human-canine bond. Whether we are going for a walk or playing a game of tug of war, we are both always happy. To quote Jennie: “Engaging with your dog builds the trust and the bond that you will share for the rest of your lives together. When we explain to our dogs in ways they understand, dogs learn to think for themselves and they are eager to learn and play with you. It’s really all about focusing on what your dog can do as opposed to stopping behaviors when they are already occurring!”
There are dozens of different types of training methods and I honestly don't know that one is superior to the other. I think you have to find what works best for you and your dog. For me, I discovered that positive reinforcement training is what is best for us. When I talked to Jennie about the benefits of positive reinforcement training, she was quick to answer: “Training with your dog builds confidence and makes our canine friends great problem solvers. As well training with our dogs through positive based methods most definitely improves our communication with our dogs. How we communicate with our dogs has been shown to improve behavior in our dogs.”
After having Jennie as an instructor, I admired her method of positive reinforcement training. It was evident that she was happy to be with her dog Benny. I asked her if she had a favorite sport to train for and her response was simple: “It’s about her dog having fun.” Jennie stated: “As long as my dog enjoys it, for me it really doesn’t matter what the sport is. I love explaining to him what it is I would like him to do when we train. Really it is up to us humans to help our dogs understand our silly training games If we train through a system where we break down our desired end goal into smaller steps so that the dog understands what it is we want, there is nothing better than seeing the joy on a dog’s face when we praise and reward them for a job well done! For me that is the greatest joy – my dog is happy and is having fun.”
What it all comes down to is being engaged with your dog and ensuring you’re both enjoying your time together. Here are some tips that will surely benefit you as you train:
- Praise and Reward: Dogs are not born into our world understanding what it is we want them to do. It is up to us to explain to them in a humane and empowering manner what it is we want. Dogs generally do not set out to be ‘bad’ – they quickly learn how to achieve what it is they want even if it is not in a manner we want. Dogs will take the path that is the easiest for them. Always remember behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated by the dog. As well the dog always has a moment of being good just before he chooses a behavior we don’t like. Capitalize on those moments of being good and reward them. I challenge readers to put aside half of their dog’s daily food and reward those moments the dog does not jump on you, or he does not steal the steak as they walk by the table! Capture good behavior and you will get good behavior.
- Manage the Behavior: This one is huge. As we actively work to change behavior we do not desire, we need to prevent or manage the unwanted behavior. If you do not want Fido to jump on your guests then be sure to put Fido away if he is not at the point in his training to greet guests. If Fido barks at people out the window and if you are not actively training at that point, close the curtains or put up a visual barrier. Nobody can nor wants to train 24-7 so managing the behavior is important.
- Consistency: Be consistent in your training. Dogs understand and will change their behavior if we are consistent in what we expect. Ditch the thought “oh you can jump on me today Fido, because I have my sweats on” or “Fido you can pull me today as I am just too tired to care”. Consistency is key to success and for your dog to learn the desired behaviors you want.
My personal advice is to be patient. Just as we didn’t learn to walk in a day, your dog is not going to learn a new behavior right away either. Training does take time and commitment. I recommend to always make it fun and never train for longer than 10-15 minutes per session. For example, train while waiting for supper to cook or while you’re waiting for your teenager to get out of the shower. Just remember, always keep it fun for both you and your dog and the end result will be success and the most wonderful bond you can imagine.
Tanya R. Martin
BSc., ADFS., RD.
President of Newfoundland (All Breed) Kennel Club
President of the Dachshunds of Newfoundland & Labrador Group
Bonus Recipe: Training Tuna Fudge
During the pandemic, I know many of us have been spending more time baking. Why not switch it up and bake some fudge for your dog? Yes, I said fudge -Tuna Fudge! This recipe has been floating around the internet for a long time, yet I thought I would share it again for anyone who may have missed it.
Training Tuna Fudge
• 2 cans of tuna (do not drain) or 15 oz. can of salmon (and juices) or canned chicken
• 2 eggs (optional, or use just one)
• 1 ½ cups flour (regular, whole wheat or rice flour)
• ¼ cup Parmesan Cheese (optional)
Mix all together and put in a greased 9×9 pan and bake at 350 F for 20 minutes. Cut into small pieces for training. It makes a lot but it freezes well. (When finished baking, turn off the oven and let it sit inside for a few minutes).
So next time you head out to pick up your 2 week supply of groceries, be sure to pick up the ingredients for this healthy training treat. Bon Appetite!