How to Use Behavioral Science to Train Your Dog

How to Use Behavioral Science to Train Your Dog

Training is a key part of dog ownership. With the right approach, training not only improves the relationship between you and your dog but also makes your dog’s life more interesting!

Here are some basics from the field of behavioral science to help you approach training naturally and effectively.

First of all, it is important to realize that you are training your dog all the time whether or not you intend to. All creatures are continually learning and updating their behavior according to their experience.

When a dog’s behavior gets the result they want (food, attention, etc), they will likely repeat the behavior. This strategy is called reinforcement. Reinforcement offers the dog an opportunity to receive something they desire as a consequence of their own behavioral choices.

Similarly, if a dog does not like the result (a jerk on their leash, being ignored, etc), they will become less likely to choose to do that behavior in the future. This is called punishment. While punishment can seem like an easy way to deter certain behavior, we must remember that it doesn’t teach the dog what the CORRECT behavior is.

Let’s apply this to a situation many owners have experienced: Your dog is excited and jumps up on people to get attention. Many people choose to punish the dog. However, this action has a few problems:

  1. As with all punishment, it doesn’t teach the dog what to do instead of jumping up.
  2. Your dog may actually enjoy what you intended as punishment! If you push the dog away, they may interpret this as playing. Scolding may feel like attention with humans joining in the excitement.
  3. Besides being inhumane, painful punishment (shock collar, hitting the dog, etc) may become associated with you or new people. This can also lead to aggression and fear.

Instead, let’s think about how we can reinforce the CORRECT BEHAVIOR. Rather than focusing on what you do not like, encourage a behavior you want your dog to do instead. In this case, let’s teach keeping all four paws on the floor.

  1. Ignore the dog while jumping up. Have visitors cross their arms over their body and turn away so that they don’t touch the dog which could unintentionally reinforce the jumping.
  2. Don’t look at or talk to the dog when jumping. Even saying “NO” can indicate you’re paying attention to the dog.
  3. When your dog finally has all four feet on the floor, THEN give the dog attention. If the dog starts jumping again, return to steps 1 and 2. With consistent practice, your dog will soon learn that keeping all paws on the ground will bring the attention they seek.

This training tool of reinforcing correct behavior can be applied to all situations. Start watching for and reinforcing “good” behavior – even in small amounts. In our example above, an overly-excited dog may only manage three paws on the ground at first. Find a starting point to reinforce and then gradually shape behavior in successive steps into your finished goal behavior. A wonderful side-effect of reinforcement is an eager and confident learner. Be consistent – enlist everyone in contact with your dog to help you.

Remember that different dogs will work for different rewards and that an individual dog’s preferences may change based on the environment. An appropriate reward is something your dog is willing to work to get. For difficult behaviors or when beginning a new behavior use higher-value rewards. Sometimes a new environment is too exciting for your dog to pay attention to a toy or attention, but they will still work for a treat. Occasionally a dog is too nervous or full to want a treat, so you’ll need to use attention, petting, or play instead. Be observant and creative. Let your dog teach you too! Don’t control the dog, control the choices.

The objective is to have clear expectations that allow your dog to be successful while moving behavior towards your intended goal.

Working with your dog using reinforcement strategies will build a positive and mutually-beneficial relationship with the dogs (and all animals) in your life.

Barbara Bingham DeutscherBarbara Bingham Deutscher, CPBT-KA, CPBC

Barbara Bingham Deutscher, CPBT-KA, CPBC is devoted to reinforcing good behavior in all animals using natural strategies from behavioral science. Experience with a variety of species such as marine mammals (notably including Hawaiian Monk Seals), horses, cats, dogs, small mammals, reptiles, and birds, gives Barbara an advantage in considering options for each individual. She is passionate about sharing the science of behavior and learning as a foundation for solving challenges and improving relationships. Barbara is a Certified Professional Bird Trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board, and a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Following a rewarding career as a professional symphony musician on the French Horn, Barbara is pleased to dedicate herself full-time to animals and their people through her business, Harmony Animal Behavior.

Harmony Animal Behavior
Working WITH you and your animal
IATCB Certified Professional Bird Trainer
IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant

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