Catch Your Dog Making Good Choices

When I first started training dogs, I worked from a mindset that was geared towards motivation, shaping, and building a bond, but I bought into methods that often went right to mild and then escalating punishment as a first-line way of dealing with many common scenarios. I ended up with wonderful obedience, but I always noticed that the behaviors that were trained more with punishment were less reliable and less joyful than those trained more with rewards.

For example, I trained Gus to walk politely on a leash primarily by popping the leash when he pulled. It was really just a jangle of his tags to remind him to pay attention, not anything painful, and it worked fine. He became a dutiful non-puller on the leash. I thought I had to teach him not to pull, so I taught him that in a way that was relatively gentle but still had punishment at its core.

When I learned to make my priorities centered around motivation, rewards, and catching my dog doing something right, we had a real breakthrough.

Comet and Gus learned early on that recalls and check-ins are highly rewarded.

I learned that, rather than teaching a dog not to pull, I could teach him to offer a loose leash; that might seem like a pretty subtle distinction, but it was a real awakening for me. Even dogs who have a confirmed habit of bad pulling can be retrained by being taught that pulling doesn't work—not that it's unpleasant, simply that it's unsuccessful—and that offering a loose leash is rewarding.

Nearly everything in a real world scenario of having your dog be a good citizen in and out of the house can be trained in terms of teaching him what to do rather than teaching him what not to do. It's the difference between "it's wrong to be underfoot in the kitchen while I'm cooking" to "go to your spot out of the way if you want to stand any chance of getting some of this chicken."

The dogs and I are not only happier to train with this mindset, but I also get results a lot faster. I think it stands to reason that it would. I was telling my dog "quit it." Once I learned more about training, I moved to "quit it; do this instead; good dog." Now I do "that doesn't work; try something else; good dog." It's faster and more fun for all of us, since the dogs learn to try to figure out what I want, rather than fearing that they'll do something that will cause me to tell them "no." Now I work hard to catch my dogs making a good choice so I can reward it, rather than worrying about catching them doing something wrong.

I also try to keep my eyes open all day long to catch my dog doing something right. If we're on the coffee shop patio and he settles down to relax, I try to remember to share a little fragment of muffin once he's all calm and nice. That works much better to teach a dog to settle and stop begging than yelling at him for doing the wrong things. And I try not to take it for granted when my more mature dogs are immediately good gentlemen who lie down quietly on the coffee shop patio. I make sure to praise them, scratch their ears, and drop them a little reward once in a while in order to reinforce what they're doing. Sometimes we take a good behavior for granted one we have it, but if anything, the dog deserves even more  rewards for being good on the first try, right?

If we're hiking, and my dog comes to check in without being asked, I try to remember to praise him or give him a treat for that, since it's a behavior I'd like to see more of. If he offers a polite greeting to a stranger, I remember to praise and pet him, rather than taking it for granted and only paying attention to his greetings when he's doing something wrong. You build stronger, deeper habits with these rewards, and your time with your dog centers around encouraging his good choices and building on them, rather than a stressful series of "no" to this and "no" to that. Faster, more effective, and more fun? Sign me up.

Take a look at your training goals, especially in areas where you and your dog are struggling to connect and be successful. Are you caught up in teaching your dog what not to do? Or are you finding opportunities to set your dog up to make a good choice so you can reward it? Isn't training more fun and rewarding when you're trying to catch your dog doing something right so you can praise and reward him?

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