Raising Rover: The Five “R”s of Positive Training
By Sarah Fulcher, Cert. CBST, CDT
Through my years of working with dogs, I have learned multiple training methods from dominance-based to dog-friendly. It is with positive reinforcement based dog training I have had the most success and satisfaction, both in training my dogs for competition sports as well as in my daily interactions with them. There is a lot of myth and confusion surrounding positive training. Successful, positive dog training is not permissive, and can be broken into 5 Rs, reinforcement, rules, respect, relationship and resource control.
These five R’s allow you to shape good behaviour and develop a healthy relationship with your canine companion. Instead of relying on fear and punishment to control your dog, teaching and moulding through positive means is effective and much more satisfying for both parties. Living with multiple dogs (who are all quite well mannered despite their different personalities – two of them siberian huskies, an independent and “difficult” breed, and one a high energy, sensitive belgian shepherd) these principles, coupled with my self-control, are ones I use on a daily basis to maintain peace and control without force and intimidation.
Reinforcement is the first ‘R’ in dog training. Reinforcement means the consequence immediately following a behaviour causes the behaviour to occur more frequently. Positive reinforcement refers to adding something which the learner likes and will work to achieve. For example, if a dog sits and immediately receives a tasty piece of food, he will be more likely to sit in the future. Alternatively, if your dog jumps up on the counter and finds a nice steak and eats it, he will be more likely to repeat the behaviour of jumping up on the counter to steal food.
Reinforcement drives all behaviour, even “bad” behaviour.
Reinforcement applies to educating our dogs in three ways:
1 – Reinforce behaviours heavily that dogs do naturally AND that we like. Being calm and quiet often gets ignored, while boisterous, annoying behaviours get a lot of attention. Reinforce desired behaviours when you notice your dog doing them with rewards such as, food, praise, play, or anything your dog wants at that moment (called a functional reward) such as a walk or to go outside. Nice, calm behaviour should get your dog things he likes, not being pushy and rude. Be careful not to reinforce the wrong behaviour! Prevent your dog from gaining environmental reinforcement for behaviour you don’t like by using management techniques such as a crate or a leash.
2 – Use positive reinforcement (adding something good) to train dogs to do behaviours we like so they can understand meaningful cues and easily follow our directions. We can teach our dogs to do anything we like from sit to lay down quietly to advanced tricks. Applying a little positive structure goes a long way.
We can also use positive reinforcement to get rid of behaviour we don’t like by training an incompatible behaviour. Think of what you want the dog to do instead of what you don’t want them to do and reinforce that. I trained my 10 year old husky, Maui, to stop whining constantly and to be calm before walks (as opposed to flailing and screaming) by ignoring her “naughtiness” and reinforcing even a second of calm and quiet with a click followed by a treat or my attention. This incredibly annoying behaviour had driven us crazy for literally years and was greatly reduced in only a few training sessions. I also trained my younger siberian husky, Nick, not to beg obnoxiously for food in a few short sessions by reinforcing when he ignored me. All three of my dogs were trained to walk nicely on the leash by reinforcing when they were not-pulling.
3 – In the heat of the moment when your dog is doing something you don’t like instead of punishing use the Redirect and Reinforce technique. Get your dog’s attention away from the bad behaviour by calling his name or making a “kissy” attention sound, have him do something you like and then reinforce him.
If you need to up the ante a bit you can also remove privileges like toys or use a short time out to give you and the dog a chance to relax while you regroup and rethink your training plan (more R’s!). As my friend and fellow trainer Diane Garrod of Canine Transformations Learning Centre says “Give your dog direction, as opposed to correction.” Redirect and reinforce allows you to do just that, as well as to “be proactive instead of reactive,” another quote from Diane which she credits to the Tellington Touch society.
The second “R” is rules. Rules, structure, or boundaries are a good idea when sharing your life with a dog. A clear rules structure lets dogs know what their boundaries are and, just like with children, boundaries with a dog are a very good thing. You don’t want to let your dog do whatever they want whenever they want, but you also don’t need to control every move he makes.
Pick the rules for your household and teach and maintain them in a consistent, persistent, positive manner. Rules do not have to be enforced through pain and harsh punishments. Be clear, consistent and confident (but not frightening) and use firm, strong body language. Also remember that just like us dogs will forget the rules once in a while and that is forgivable. Do not expect them to be perfect! After all when was the last time you got a speeding or parking ticket?
Respect, the third ‘R’, is incredibly important. Respect goes both ways – it must be given in order to be received. Respect is not synonymous with fear. As guardians we must remain in control, but all interactions with our dogs should be done with the utmost respect to the dog and with regard to their emotions and needs.
Dogs are intelligent, emotional beings who see the world differently in many ways, but just like us they have physical, mental, and emotional needs that must be met in order to be fulfilled. Learn to listen to what your dog is telling you and consistently meet their mental and physical exercise requirements as well as their emotional and social needs. A lot of “bad” behaviour is the result of boredom or frustration caused by lack of exercise and stimulation. We often hear the phrase “don’t humanize your dog” which is important, but often used as an excuse to inflict harsh punishment in the name of “training”. While it’s imperative to recognize that dogs think differently than us and have different needs, culture, and language, it is never necessary or acceptable to use the excuse that they are “not humans” to justify physical, mental, or emotional abuse.
Respect includes being a responsible owner; feed your dog a healthy diet, provide regular and adequate veterinary care, make sure they are supervised and kept safe, and give them some basic obedience training to help them understand the rules of the human world.
Relationship, the most important R, is the fourth. Without it all the training in the world may not get you very far. If you put the time into developing it training often become less necessary as problem behaviours may lessen or disappear. What you can achieve with your dog is possible only within the bounds of the quality of your relationship.
A good relationship is based on mutual respect, trust, love, and fair leadership. It makes your dog feel safe, secure, and lets them know you are in control so they don’t have to be. With every interaction with your dog ask yourself – is it good or bad for the relationship? Try to choose actions which will better your relationship; it takes a lot of self control on our part, but it is possible to portray dissatisfaction without harming or frightening your dog. Try to focus on teaching desired behaviours through positive reinforcement rather than getting frustrated or angry when your dog doesn’t do what you like. This is fast, effective and good for your relationship.
The fifth and final ‘R’ is resource control. Resource control is an excellent way to attain leadership with your dog without being frightening, intimidating or forceful. The goods in life come through you and don’t just don’t flow freely – this causes your dog to look to you to meet his needs.
Examples of meeting a dog’s needs would be feeding meals, limiting access to toys, sitting to go outside, and providing couch and bed privileges with permission only.
Keep these 5 ‘R’s in mind when dealing with your dog: reinforcement, rules, respect, relationship and resource control. I use most if not all of them on a daily basis. When you put your mind to it, it is quite fast and easy to get rid of annoying or problematic behaviour by teaching an incompatible alternative behaviour and developing a good relationship. If you put your brain to good use and practice self control the canine companion you’ve dreamed of can become reality with a little time and effort.
Sarah Fulcher, BFA, Cert. CBST, CDT is owner and head dog trainer at Barks and Recreation Pet Services in Trail, BC. She has been training and rehabilitating dogs for over ten years, and teaching people to communicate and work with their canines professionally for 4 years. She is committed to a positive, rewards-based, results oriented dog training philosophy.
If you would like to learn more please feel free to contact Sarah by email or phone 250-521-2275.