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Dog Training That Actually Works: Why Positive Reinforcement Is the Key to Success

TFLiving recently had the pleasure of providing an interactive virtual experience for our communities centered around dog training and behavior, hosted by Certified Professional Dog Trainer Lindsay Root of Philly Unleashed. In this engaging workshop, residents learned topics including decompression of new dogs to a home, various approaches to reinforcement training, socialization and general solutions to common behavioral challenges many encounter with their pets. For those who missed it or are just interested in learning more about this event, we’re recapping several of the highlights and crucial tips Lindsay Root shared with our communities.

Decompression For New Dogs

For new adopted dogs, stressful events in the household, and even things such a change of location or out of ordinary experience to their regular environment (even if temporary), dogs can easily become stressed and require a period of decompression. Often times, we categorize events that we don’t deem as very stressful neutral or mildly uncomfortable for dogs, when in their world, it actually interferes with their emotions a greater deal. When dogs suffer a stressful event, their cortisol levels can spike and stay for up to 72 hours after the fact, so even when you have moved on from the event, your dog may be still lingering on it.

Some general rules for decompression include: 

  1. Maintain Routine Whenever Possible: Dogs love patterns and knowing whats coming. Uncertainty causes dogs to become more stressed, nervous and anxious.
  2. Create Privacy: Letting your dog have time in the same room, but on a separate bed or in a kennel, or creating some sort of safe space is a key to denoting a distinct place in your dog’s mind that they will associate as uniquely theirs. 
  3. Set Boundaries: Kids and dogs need to have boundaries between each other. Kids cant bother dogs when they are in their space, and must be taught to allow them privacy when the dog is in their safe place so that the dog can fully establish and maintain that association with their privacy and space.

Positive Association and Positive Reinforcement Training

Root discusses the significance of incorporating positive associations as a key to reinforcement and training, instead of negative reinforcement actions. Positive association occurs when you are exposing your dog to something and positively socializing them to that experience or outcome. A common scenario of bringing your dog to an outdoor dining area, while knowing they are afraid of people, noises or other dogs is an example of where people will often hope that throwing the dog into the environment enough times will resolve the anxieties. This is not doing anything to help them in that moment, and instead only puts them around those stressors thinking the more exposure will eliminate the stress. What actually occurs, is the dog is instead flooded by their triggers and may overtime, instead resort to what is called ‘learned helplessness’. For example, if you are afraid of spiders, you wouldn’t be likely to overcome your fear it if you were stuck in an entrapped area with them. Instead, the experience would likely exasperate your fear. The same goes with your dog. If you consistently flood them, you can actually manifest a greater amount of fear in your dog to react even more to what the stressor is. 

So what is a workaround to dealing with challenges such as brining your dog to an environment with triggers for them? Root says the absolute key is to start small. Don’t go to a dog park or outdoor dining as a first step, instead meet with a friend at your home to get them comfortable around another person. The next time, try meeting your friend somewhere near by. The time after that you might try a smaller group setting, and on and on, until you have worked your dog up to becoming comfortable in busier settings through a series of sequential and cumulative scenarios that slowly and strategically build your dog’s comfort over time.

Marker based Training also goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement – using a clicker or you can use a verbal marker (saying “YES”), OR both is an example of this. So when the dog does the desired behavior, you use your marker, and then they know they did the right thing. The marker allows you a couple extra seconds of time before they don’t understand what they did right. Timing is critical for this so they build the right association. 

Like building positive associations, positive reinforcement training uses a motivator to create positive associations for the dog. It is life changing for dogs and helps by helping them to create bonds with their owners or people handling them, it is confidence building by helping them feel like they are correct in their behavior and successful. We discuss more on examples of motivators and details as it relates to training further below.

Why Negative Reinforcement Simply Does Not Work

Dog training is not a regulated industry and unfortunately because of this, many use punishment training that negatively impacts dog behavior and mental well being. Negative reinforcements include actions like shock-callers, yelling, and applying uncomfortable pressure to areas of the dog when their desired outcome does not happen or as a reaction to their behavior. Why is it not as impactful? When a punishment is enacted, dogs are not clear on why they were disciplined. An example of this is, they bark and get a shock collar, which causes them to actually feel more trapped, and because of the confusion of this, they associate everything that happened in that environment with that experience and end up putting it under the same category. So if the trigger for the barking was something like another dog, and then they receive this shock which doubles on that experience, they now hate the initial trigger even more (the event of seeing another dog) as it causes them to now relate this already negative feeling with the association of being shocked. Research has confirmed that most times when adversary action is applied, it is not only less effective, but that dogs can become more aggressive and more fearful.

Top Pointers For Using Positive Reinforcement When Dog Training

Root says that food is the most positive association motivator, and is most often used for training. It can easily be used particularly in the beginning to build positive associations. When dog is good at a cue, you can start to train with less food, and do random reinforcements, so it’s not every single time as you start to wean them away from treats all the time. Toys, real life rewards (car ride, dog walk) and praise are other alternative positive reinforcements you can use later on, although food will always work the best. 

3 biggest pointers working with dog training:

  1. Being as proactive and preventative as possible: If you are always reacting, and not catching an unwanted behavior before it happens, that’s not going to do anything for you. You want to say, “I know at 3pm, my dog tries to run after the mailman”. That gives you time to prepare for the undesirable behavior. If you are only reactionary, it takes them a lot longer to learn. If you have a puppy or playful dog, they are especially looking for a reaction, so the more you react, you are actually reinforcing it.
  2. Rewarding your dog for desired behaviors they do naturally: For instance, if you are walking not paying attention and your dog ignores another dog, person, squirrel, or they give you eye contact, you have an opportunity to create a confident moment in those first good behaviors or interactions rather than reacting later on after it happens. It can take time to build back up these behaviors if you don’t reward them or ignore them over time, and the positive behaviors can also go away if not rewarded. 
  3. Ask Yourself, What does motivate your dog? A lot of times it is food, but sometimes the food has different values (kibble can be low value as an example, followed by milk bones, then pepperonis – or something soft and whiffy). High-value dog foods such as chicken cheese, liverwurst, hot dogs can be used as ultimate rewards. Toys are harder to use as a motivator, but can be a tool in a less distracting environment. Praise doesn’t leave a lasting impression, but adds to the positive association experience. 

She also recommends working on behaviors in low distraction areas before you try to work on your dogs behavior in higher traffic places such as lobbies, on a walk, or in a public atmosphere. 

Lastly, Root emphasizes that the number one pointer when practicing training with your dog is to give them time and be patient, starting slow, and starting at home. Train in all the different areas since dogs don’t generalize. If you think it takes too much time, realize that even 5-10 minutes a day can be effective. You cant go from 100 treats to 1 treat. You need to decrease very slowly. It’s like us going to the gym. It happens slowly over time.

General Solutions to Commonly Asked Questions on Dog Behavior

When your dog is doing something you don’t like: In these scenarios you want to train what you call an alternative behavior. So if for example, your dog keeps jumping and you just say “No!” but don’t show them what you want instead, (guide them to sit, or to go get a toy, or to sit for a pet) it will not work. You need to teach them the alternative behavior and then consider a reward (positive reinforcement) instead. If you try a positive reinforcement a few times and it’s not working out, switch to something else. Maybe its going for a walk, using a food puzzle, settling in a crate, etc. Not all actions will work the exact same every time. You should have a tool belt of things at hand that you know your dog may like, and know what will possibly work and not work, based on your dogs unique preferences. Dogs are emotional beings and their preferences will tend to vary. 

Helping a dog cope with a trigger: When you want to help your dog overcome a certain fear or trigger, the solution is known as counter conditioning and desensitization. Desensitizing to a trigger or stressor requires starting at a low enough level that they don’t know the difference. For instance, you notice your dog is afraid of brooms, but you need to slowly get him more comfortable. The first time you do this, lay the broom on the ground. Give a treat over time, leading up to the broom. Work on eventually, slowly making contact with the broom, then lifting it a little higher, more and more and more each time, providing rewards throughout these experiences. It will take time, but with patience you can break some of these fears. In other scenarios, if the trigger or event is abrupt and unexpected, you can use an alternative behavior again, or a distraction to regain their focus, then reward them by following up with a treat (counter conditioning) so they are able to move on from whatever is triggering them. Cues like touching where they take their nose to your hand, or cue like “Find it”, where you take a treat or a toy, toss past their eye line, and bop it on their head, or using other cues such as “sit, paw, fetch” will allow you grab their attention to regain their focus, then allow you a counter conditioning opportunity to provide a positive association with a follow up reward. 

How to handle dogs when they are leash reactive: Root recommends work on creating positive reinforcements based on the dogs behaviors and cues in a starting in a low distraction environment, with the ultimate key here being that you need to grab your dogs focus. Start at your home where there are minimal distractions. Say the dog’s name, get them to look at you, and then reward them. As you progress, work slowly into higher distraction areas. As you are walking the dog, try to not let them get too far on the leash ahead of you, otherwise you are back in the reactionary position, rather than preventative. The second the leash becomes tense, do not move forward. Turn around and walk the other way when they start pulling. Get them to step back and get beside you. Once they have done this, offer praise, take a few steps, and then reward them with a treat after. 

Barking or begging while you eat– Using alternative behaviors can help distract your dog from the situation, but the most effective strategy here is to put them in a separate zone. Have them go to their bed or their ‘safe place’ and train them that good things come from their places. See if you can’t time their meal with yours. Otherwise you can add a little separation with a gate in worst case scenario. A food puzzle for dogs can also be helpful as a tool to help keep them occupied when you can’t have the distraction. 

Energy management: Making sure they get exercise and opportunities to walk as much as possible will also help them in their behavior, focus, and allow them to also have better rest and health overall.

Stop pawing at people: Try to find out the root of why your dog is pawing. Create alternative behaviors. Sometimes, it can help to counter with an action such as, when they do this they get no attention, and then when they stop pawing, they do get the attention.

How to stop jumping up on people: There are lots of ways to stop and prevent jumping, but Lindsey recommends that you practice using a combo of a place cue with a reward. Try for example rewarding them slowly when they go to a designated spot or location, and then stay or sit. Have a greeting protocol in which they learn over time that they will be rewarded if they do not jump. 

Crate training: Crate training depends on individual dog. Start in small increments. Play crate games, toss a handful of kibble or treats in with them when you move them into their crate. Adaptal spray can also help ( which is a natural pheromone mimicked that normally comes from the mom). As with just about everything else, you have to create a positive association within that isolated environment.

Separation anxiety – It can be hard to treat separation anxiety, but often you have to diagnose the root cause. For some dogs, it might be triggered only from the doggy daycare, the dog park, or a with a family member. Observe when the behavior happens. Is it when you leave, does it matter the person or the place, and does it help when the dog is in the crate, outside the crate? With other common behavioral challenges, you have to diagnose what specifically creating this anxious behavior and then addressing that root through alternative behaviors and counter conditioning.

If you’re interested in learning more about virtual lessons, private training or other questions for your dog, be sure to reach out or visit our hosts at Philly Unleashed today.

Catherine Rotman