Whether the learners are human or canine, one thing is true: the more that they have control over their outcomes, the more anxiety decreases.
Marissa Martino, CTC, CPDT-KA, Owner of Paws & Reward
As any dog owner knows, a bad day can be turned around by opening the door to the wagging tail and unconditional love of a canine companion. And while dogs are best friends to many, animal behaviors can create disharmony in homes and neighborhoods.
These days, dog ownership doesn’t have to mean putting up with behaviors such as barking, lunging and pulling on a leash, or chewing up a new pair of shoes. Dogs are fast learners, but training them is not a one-way learning process. While “dog training” implies that only the dog is learning, it is essential that human owners be willing to learn what motivates their dog as well as their situational and emotional triggers. With this intel, human learners can teach and reinforce positive behaviors rather than punishing undesirable ones. With the help of a dog trainer, humans and dogs can learn techniques to reduce stress and enjoy time together.
There’s no shortage of dog training methods out there, so how to know which method works best? The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) “supports training methods that are based on an understanding of how animals learn and incorporate kindness and respect for both the pet and the guardian. Humane training makes primary use of lures and rewards such as food, praise, petting, and play.”
Since the 1980s, positive behavior dog training has gained in popularity as animal behaviorists and veterinarians have published papers and become household names through TV shows such as It’s Me or the Dog with Victoria Stilwell. Because of the work of these pioneers, 21st-century dog owners can use their understanding of animal and human psychology to encourage the behaviors they want without using aversive methods such as hitting or shocking. Dog training is offered through group classes or private training with a licensed dog trainer.
When is the best time to start dog training? Marissa Martino, CTC, CPDT-KA, and owner of Paws & Reward sees clients at all ages and stages of dog ownership. She coaches people and trains dogs of all breeds using methods rooted in applied behavioral analysis (ABA).
Read on to learn the best dog training methods, as recommended by Marissa Martino, CTC, CPDT-KA of Paws & Reward. She graciously broke down the most effective methods and tools to coach people and their dogs.
Positive Reinforcement Training
The philosophy that I subscribe to is rooted in the acronym LIMA, which stands for at Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. I use this when trying to facilitate behavior change for both the canine learner and the human learner. My job is to teach people how to change their behavior in order to facilitate a change in their dog’s behavior.
LIMA: Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive
An example of Least Intrusive is asking a human learner, “Given what we know about your dog, what is the best way for you to implement this new technique I shared with you?” or or “What’s the best way to deliver feedback to you regarding your behavior with the dog?”
Asking these questions helps me know how I can help human learners control their environment to reduce anxiety in the process. Whether the learners are human or canine, one thing is true: the more that they have control over their outcomes, the more anxiety decreases.
As for the Minimally Aversive part, I teach human learners to ask questions such as:
- How can I take all the steps necessary before I even think about punishing my dog’s undesirable behavior?
- How can I change my dog’s environment and see if changing it facilitates a new response that I could mark and reinforce?
- How do I meet my dog’s needs physically, medically, and emotionally?
Undesirable behavior has a function for the dog, even though we may not like the behavior. For example, if a dog is barking and lunging at the sight of another dog, and that other dog moves away, then the barking and lunging behaviors get reinforced by the environment (i.e., the dog moving away), and therefore they increase in frequency.
Rather than punishing the behavior, human learners can ask themselves, “What behavior would I like to see instead?” With positive behavior training methods, we rarely have to punish, because human learners can teach and reinforce the behavior they desire. When a dog’s behavior doesn’t serve a function for them anymore, the undesirable behavior dissipates.
The reason we avoid using punishment as a strategy is that it can have significant fallout for the learner. It can cause a lot of frustration for the dog, as it does not show the dog what you want instead of the undesired behavior.
Punishment techniques can also cause unintended negative associations to certain things in the environment. If a dog is barking and lunging at the sight of bikers and gets a leash correction each time he engages in this behavior, he may start to associate the pain of the leash correction with the sight of the bikers—not with his behavior.
The LIMA philosophy encourages trainers and owners to make the learning process safe and motivating by teaching the dog what we’d like to see instead. It requires asking:
- What is the function of the behavior?
- What do I need to do within the environment or within the consequence of that behavior to facilitate a new behavior?
For example, let’s say every time I pick up the leash, my dog runs to the door and barks, and then I take him for a walk. In that case, I reinforced the running to the door and barking with getting access to a walk.
If I wanted to change that, I could walk to the dog and ask my dog to do a different behavior (sit, down, wait) before I clip his leash and take him on a walk. I show the dog that other behaviors can access the same reinforcer. Through practicing this, the barking will dissipate as it no longer serves the dog.
A clicker is an auditory device that is designed to mark the moment the dog engages in the correct behavior. It acts as the bridge between when the behavior takes place and when the reinforcer is delivered to the dog, which in most cases, is food.
An example of rewarding behavior with a clicker is this: your dog sees you pick up the leash and goes to the door and offers a sit. The owner sounds the clicker (auditory marker), clips the leash, and opens the door for a walk (positive reinforcement of desired behavior).
What’s important is that the positive behavior gets rewarded.
The Components of Positive Reinforcement Dog Training
A common misconception around positive reinforcement is: if there’s no positive behavior to mark and reward, there’s just bad behavior, right? There are three ways we can address a lack of positive behavior: management, training skills, and behavior modification.
Let’s say I have a dog that barks at me when I’m eating dinner. The cue for the dog to start this behavior is me sitting down at the table. In the past, maybe I’ve fed my dog from the table. So the dog thinks, This is an opportunity. I’m going to go over there and tell her I’m here so she can feed me.
In a situation like that, I have a few options: I can manage and prevent the situation from taking place by putting my dog in his crate with a food puzzle while I eat.
A more advanced solution for the same problem would be to teach the dog to lie down on his bed while I eat. Over time, I would build duration for this behavior by reinforcing the dog for lying on the bed quietly. This is teaching my dog what I want him to do versus punishing him for barking at me while eating.
Behavior modification can be more challenging because it asks human learners to be more aware of their dogs’ environmental cues. Let’s say my dog doesn’t bark and lunge at other dogs at 40 feet, but he does when they’re in the 30-foot radius. What I train clients to do is make sure that they’re in a situation where they can practice behaviors with their dog at the 30-foot threshold.
The reason we train under an emotional threshold is that the dog is more likely to learn a new skill in that environment than when he has already started engaging in unwanted behavior. In this situation, if my dog looks at the other dog and then looks back at me, I can start to mark and reinforce that desired behavior (looking at me). However, if the other dog gets too close and my dog is getting more tense and going over his emotional threshold, I’ve got to move him out of that situation in order to help him recover. If I can get his nervous system to calm down a bit, I can teach him a new response.
Just like humans, dog behavior can be unpredictable, so human learners have to be patient and creative with how to manage undesirable behavior. Likewise, if you live in New York City, it may seem impossible to have a dog under threshold, so we might need to start the training process inside the building. We would teach the skills in apartment hallways and then generalize it out into the street.
Tools for Positive Reinforcement Dog Training
I often suggest having some enrichment toys like food puzzles because they provide mental stimulation and reduce unwanted behaviors. Some dog owners like using clickers to reinforce positive behaviors and others find having a treat bag is helpful. I also recommend no-pull harnesses to prevent leash pulling. And of course, food treats are helpful, but they are very specific to the dietary needs of the dog.
These items can be expensive, so I have a video with DIY enrichment toys and treats that dog owners can make at home.
Advice for Human Learners When Dog Training Gets Tough
The first thing to remember is that dog behavior is fluid. Some people think: “I train a behavior once and I don’t need to practice anymore.” Dogs, like people, are in a constant state of learning, whether we are in training mode or not.
Behavior is impacted by our environment and the consequences that happen in our environment. You’ll see ebbs and flows within behavior. A perfectly trained dog isn’t a place where we arrive. I think that that’s really important because it helps people take behavior less personally. It’s not that their dog is stubborn or aiming to make their life unpleasant. It’s more that something is reinforcing or punishing this response. It’s actually that simple.
The second thing to remember is that a dog owner’s internal state has a huge impact on their dog’s behavior. For example, if I walk outside and I’m stressed out or worried we’re going to run into dogs, then I start tensing up on the leash, walking faster, or breathing shorter. My tone might become frustrated. All of those things can have a huge impact on the dog and how they’re responding.
We can either use this connection to our advantage or we can crash and burn. So I work a lot with clients on shifting their internal mindset before they engage in behavior training to have the best possible outcomes with their dog.
Resources for Dog Training Support
I have an interactive book titled Human-Canine Behavior Connection: Building Better Relationships Through Dog Training. The book offers training techniques and teaches human learners the parallels between how dogs and humans perceive the world. The book has steps and exercises to build a deeper connection with you and your dog.
I also host a Paws & Reward podcast featuring conversations between me and animal behaviorists on topics such as dog training, behavior change, the human-canine bond, and the relationships with our loved ones.
Other podcasts and blogs I recommend are:
- Cog-Dog Radio podcast by the Cognitive Canine
- Drinking from the Toilet (a technical podcast for dog trainers)
- Canine Conversations (for pet parents and new trainers)
- Journey Dog Training (blog and podcast for dog parents)
- Companion Animal Psychology (blog for pet parents)
Dog training is not a six-weeks-and-done experience. Dogs, just like humans, have varying emotional states day-to-day. It’s important to be patient with the process. Behavior change does not happen overnight, so remember to be kind to yourself and to your dog in the process.