When looking at how best to train dogs we must consider our dogs and their emotions. There are many different ways that one can train a dog, it is often said that there are as many ways of training a dog as there are dog trainers. However all these different methods are based on two different theories.

The first theory is referred to as “Learning Theory” and is based on how dogs learn, it is better know as “Reward Based Training”. This method uses positive reinforcements, treats or a favourite toy, to reward correct behaviour and ignores unwanted behaviour. The second theory is the “Dominance Theory”, and is often referred to as “traditional training methods”, This method uses punitive training techniques such as negative reinforcement and positive punishment or in plain English: force, discomfort and pain.

Now let’s have a quick look at how these two different methods affect the dogs emotions. Let’s start with having a look at training a dog using the traditional principles of the Dominance Theory. For example: You try and teach your dog how to sit using a choke chain. Using this method to teach the sit involves tightening the chain around the dog’s neck while pressing his bum to the floor with the other hand until he sits. The tension is then released on the chain because the dog is now sitting, if the dog moves the chain is tightened again, to reinforce the Sit command. Emotionally this type of approach will invoke feelings of fear, frustration and stress in the dog. The dog does as he is asked to avoid the choke chain being tightened, in other words he behaves because he is afraid of feeling pain and discomfort if he doesn’t do as he is told.

Now let’s take a look at how you would teach this same exercise using modern Reward Based Training methods. This time we are using a tasty treat, we hold the treat just above his nose and move our hand slightly up and back. The dog, who wants the treat, will bring his head up slightly and back in response to our hand movement. This movement will bring his bum to the floor and the dog will do a sit. As he sits he gets a lot of praise and get to eat that tasty treat as a reward for doing the right thing. Emotionally this approach will involve relief, happiness and joy. The dog does as he is asked because he wants the reward, whether this reward is a tasty treat, praise from his human or a game with a favourite toy, doesn’t matter. He will keep repeating this behaviour because it was rewarding.

As you can see from the above Reward Based Training is from an emotional point a view a much nicer experience for the dog. This is why leading dog trainers, companion animal behaviourists and veterinarians advocate the use of reward based training methods when training dogs and other animals. Reward based training methods are easy to use, effective in teaching the dog what we want them to learn and above all it is a fair way of teaching them.

However, before we start training our dogs WE must first understand how dogs learn. Yes, you did hear me right to be able to teach our dogs we must understand “How Dogs Learn”. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into a barrage of technical language and science talk that boggles the mind. I will keep it simple and easy to understand.

There are some basic rules that apply to reward based training and these rules are:

  1. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Dogs will try and repeat the behaviours they find rewarding. However what dogs find rewarding might be completely different from what you as an owner want from your dog. To a dog a reward is not just the praise, attention or the treats that we give them, but dogs can also be rewarded by being shouted at when they do something we don’t want. The reason for this is that we are still giving them attention and they are especially rewarded by feelings of relief. This explains why “bad” or unwanted behaviours are as easily and quickly learned as “good” wanted behaviours.
  2. Rewards need to be rewarding. This should be obvious, but in practice we don’t tend to think about what is rewarding to our dogs. A reward must be something that the puppy likes wants and is prepared to work for. The higher value the reward is the stronger (and faster) the learning becomes. For example a piece of sausage will have a higher reward value than a piece of dry dog food. Not only will your dog learn quicker and better using these high value rewards, he will also be more focused on you as he will want to earn these very tasty treats.
  3. Punishment is in-effective and doesn’t work long term. The easiest way to explain why punishment doesn’t work is to illustrate this with an example from our everyday life. Think about when you get done for speeding, yes you will be very annoyed that you got caught, you pay the fine (punishment) and will probably drive more carefully and slower than you used to … for a while. Once the shock of getting caught and your annoyance with yourself wears off – you will find yourself speeding again. You will probably be a little more careful about where you speed as you don’t want to get caught again. The same principle applies to dogs and punishment. The punishment might suppress the unwanted behaviour for a while but in the end the unwanted behaviour will resurface.

So when we are training our dogs we are trying to create as many opportunities as possible for “good” associations; this is why we will give our dogs a treat every time they respond correctly to our request. We will also be ignoring the unwanted behaviour as we have learned that any attention, whether positive (verbal praise) or negative (shouting), is rewarding for our dogs (they don’t understand the difference).

A dog will make the association between the sit and the reward quicker if we repeat the exercise several times and each time we reward him for the response we want. The more times the exercise is repeated and rewarded the stronger the response will become.

This is why we use tasty treats to train our dogs, most dogs are very food orientated and the promise of the reward motivates them to try and offer us the response we are looking for. Don’t worry if your dog is not very food orientated, you can also use your dogs favourite toy as the reward using these same principles.