When treating dogs with behavioural issues it is important for caregivers to understand the importance of developing positive communication. Effective communication results in a pet that has some control and predictability in their lives. Both these factors are soothing to anxious animals. It makes the pet feel safe.
When communication is poor between pet and caregiver the end result can be frustration for the caregiver and confusion for the pet. When caregivers are frustrated they are more likely to resort to punishment in an attempt to stop behaviours that they don’t like, but simply stopping behaviours is not usually a long-term solution. Often unwanted behaviours are repeatedly punished ineffectually with the added effect of not decreasing the behaviour. This results in a nagging, abusive relationship. Punishment has the added disadvantage of destroying the human-animal bond. The pet will lose trust in its caregivers and be less willing to interact. Punishment has been linked with dog bites and increased aggression.
When communication is based on a common language learning is fast and the animal becomes enthusiastic to participate.
Rewarding an animal for behaviours you want to strengthen is the key. If you DON’T want a dog to jump up on visitors, teach a sit for a reward. Ask all persons to follow your lead. Instead of chastising a dog for jumping up, try ignoring behaviour you don’t like. Even “telling off” can be the attention a dog is seeking and may not result in a decrease of the behaviour.
Instead always ask yourself – What do you want the dog to do? – then teach it.
Use a clicker, or a marker word, to signal to your dog it is performing the behaviour you are after. Over time the dog will be an active participator in trying to do behaviours that earn him/her a reward.
A click is always followed by a tangible reward in the form of a very small piece of food. Acquiring a new skill is fastest when reinforced at every opportunity at a high rate. Over time the reward can be intermittent but still remembering to reward every time the click or marker word is used. See clicker handout.
Working in a positive style with your dog has many other advantages. It teaches you that behaviour change can be force-free. When you stop punishing your dog you will be surprised how quickly your dog can learn. Without fear the dog is much more willing to engage and play. Both are powerful motivators.
Giving a dog a choice is also important. Sometimes new learning is hard and a momentary break is required. It is okay for a dog to say No – I can’t do it, not yet. It is your job to make it easier.
Only engage in training when you are in a good mood and have the patience to teach and guide. Think of them as cues NOT commands.
As a Veterinary Behaviourist my advice will only ever be based on the principle of using the most minimally aversive and least intrusive methods to achieve change.