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Behaviourist's Corner

3 ways positive reinforcement can change your pet's behaviour


Does your dog jump up or ignore basic commands? Positive reinforcement training can change that, says clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar. Here she explains why it's recognised as the most effective training method and gives her step-by-step guide to putting it into action.


Positive vs negative

Until the 1980s, most pet experts believed that the best way to train your dog was by showing him that you were 'boss' right from the start, and then maintaining that power balance throughout your pet's life. This training method is known as theory of dominance, and uses punishment and negative experiences (such as inflicting pain or withdrawing privileges) to discourage any unwanted behaviour.

However, most behaviourists and trainers now know that this concept is flawed: dominance theory was based on faulty research that came from observing wolves in captivity. 'This led to the belief that an alpha male in a pack leads through aggression,' explains Inga. 'However, the wolves observed in captivity were often unrelated and forced to live together in small, man-made enclosures. We now understand that wolves act in a very different way when living in natural family packs in the wild. But, most importantly, we know that although dogs evolved from wolves, domestic dogs behave in a different manner. They don't form the same sort of family packs as wolves do, and they've adapted to live in cooperation with strangers – be it humans or other dogs.'

Positively better

'Positive reinforcement is a fun and kind way to train dogs,' explains Inga. 'It recognises that they are social animals and enjoy interaction, and so it works on the principle of rewarding correct behaviour. For example, if a dog is given a reward for sitting he will be more likely to sit again.'

On the other hand, a dog who has been punished is very likely to grow up to be fearful and could even lash out. 'Because dominance-based training involves confrontation, it can be very stressful for dogs,' says Inga. 'Shouting at and punishing a dog will confuse him, which will most likely make him anxious and cause him to resort to defensive behaviour such as aggression. Instead, I believe in developing a relationship with your dog where he's obedient because he's happy to do what you ask, rather than because he's fearful of punishment.'

Training this way is also a much more enjoyable experience for you and your dog. 'It's important for your bond with your pet to have a relationship based on kindness,' Inga says. 'And, as an added bonus, positive reinforcement works really well. Most dogs are very happy to work for rewards such as treats, toys or praise from their owners.'

Using positive reinforcement in 3 everyday situations

1. To prevent jumping up

You might not have minded your dog jumping up at you excitedly when he was a puppy, but as a fully-grown dog it can be harder to deal with. Here are Inga's tips for changing this behaviour:

  • Try not to shout at your dog or push him down if he jumps up. A negative reaction is likely to confuse him and he may jump up more to try to appease you.
  • Instead, stay calm and turn your back on him. Ignore him and don't speak.
  • Then, the second that all four of his paws are back on the ground, reward him with a treat and lots of attention. (Making sure to repeat these steps if he starts jumping again.) Ensure everyone in your family and all visitors also follow this rule.
  • Your dog will soon learn that the way to get attention, and possibly a tasty treat, is to remain on all fours.

2. To teach recall

Recall training is essential for your dog's safety. Inga explains how positive reinforcement can help you ensure he comes the first time he is called.

  • Get into the habit of calling your dog back to you periodically during the day, at home and in the garden, as well as out on walks.
  • To do so, crouch down and hold your arms out wide, as if you are waiting for a hug, and call him excitedly.
  • No matter how long it takes for your dog to return, reward him with a treat or toy and lots of enthusiastic praise. Your dog will learn that coming back when called results in something nice happening, and so will soon be rushing back every time you call.

3. Training to sit

In the past, some trainers recommended forcing a dog to sit by pushing his bottom down to the ground – a more confrontational method, which caused confusion and anxiety for many pets. Using positive reinforcement is not only kinder, but will also make this basic command simple to teach. Inga explains how:

  • Watch out for any time your dog sits naturally during the day.
  • When his bottom hits the ground, immediately say the command 'sit' and reward him with a treat and praise while he is still sitting.
  • You can also use a treat to 'lure' him into a sitting position. To do so, move the hand that's holding the treat over his head towards the back of his neck. As he follows the treat his bottom should naturally go down. Once he is sitting, give the treat and lots of praise. Your dog will soon be sitting when you use the command 'sit'.

Treats and your pet's calorie intake

While edible treats are a sure way to motivate your dog during training, keep in mind that the calories can add up. To ensure this doesn't lead to weight gain, you can feed tiny lower-calorie options (such as a scrap of chicken the size of your little finger nail), rather than shop-bought treats.

Alternatively, decrease the portion size of your dog's regular meals on days he's had plenty of treats.


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