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How Dog Training Works

Brown dog covering his face with his paw.
Costello being "shy" for his trick dog title.

It might surprise you to know that dogs don’t need training. Dogs behave in exactly the way they need to meet their needs. However, letting them live in our homes this way would be a disaster. This is why we train them; otherwise, we’d be living in pee and poo and unable to sit on our destroyed furniture.

There is one simple principle that guides the behavior of all living beings: do what’s rewarding and avoid what’s unpleasant. This principle guides every action a human, a horse, a cat, or a dog performs. In short, every behavior has a function.

How can we apply these rules to dog training?

Let’s take the first part: Dogs do what’s rewarding. This part is easy. When dogs do behaviors we want them to do, we give them a reward. The more often a behavior is rewarded, the more likely it is to be repeated. Usually, that reward is food. Food equals survival, so most dogs are pretty motivated by it. Some dogs are more motivated by play and toys, and those are valid rewards as well. Now, there are some rewards that are of higher value than others, and dogs will work harder to obtain those. On the flip side, if a reward’s value is too low, the dog will not work for it. Think of it this way: If I asked you to pour me a cup of coffee from the pot and bring it to me for $1, you’d probably be fine with that. Heck, you probably would have done it for me for free. But if I asked you to cook a 10-course meal for a party of 7 and offered you $1, you’d probably laugh at me and walk away. We expect our pay to be commensurate with our effort, and we should pay our dogs by the same guidelines.

I can hear you saying, “It’s all well and good to reward good behavior, but what about when my dog does things I don’t like?” First, let’s look at “Dogs avoid what’s unpleasant.” The logical extension of that is to make a behavior so unpleasant, the dog will avoid doing it. This is called punishment, and it definitely works to stop behavior. A lot of times it only stops the behavior when the guardian is there to see it. (Did your parents ever punish you for something like smoking? Did it stop you from smoking? It probably stopped you from smoking in the house, but I bet you found other places to smoke.) There are many pitfalls to using punishment in a training regimen. I’m not going to describe them here, because I already did so in an earlier post. Suffice to say, punishment isn’t the preferred route to go. This leaves us with the question of how to get rid of those pesky, annoying behaviors.

Remember what I told you before? Every behavior has a function. That means, every behavior fulfills a need. If you just suppress or stop the behavior with a punishment, you still won’t be meeting the need. If you teach a dog a new behavior to meet that need, you end up with a satisfied dog who now trusts you to take care of him. For example, my dog likes to paw at me for attention. I don’t really like that because it scratches me and hurts. Instead, I teach her to rest her head on my lap for attention. We both get our needs met.

Training your dog can be remarkably easy when you remember the tenet that dogs do what’s rewarding and every behavior has a function. When you can train your dog with empathy and compassion, you will enhance your life with your dog and achieve that companionship you envisioned when you first got them.

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