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Needs to get into a training program along with us to withhold positive reinforce

My wife and I recently got our first dog together as a present to ourselves for our second wedding anniversary. Dorothy is a cute, feisty, playful Cairn Terrier with a few annoying habits. We both agree she needs to get into a training program along with us. Although I've never had a dog before, my wife had several while growing up. Two of her childhood dogs actually were given away because of bad behavior, which I believe hurt my wife deeply, although she doesn't admit it. Her family's third dog was a Beagle her father trained with a heavy hand and the help of an ex-military dog trainer. The dog did tow the line but seemed very downtrodden to me when I met it. The dog always was slinking around, seemed hand-shy and ran to its little dog bed whenever it heard any loud voices.

Here is my problem: Whenever my father-in-law visits, he tells us how we need to get Dorothy "in line." I'm worried my wife agrees with his hard-line approach to training; she seems to be very harsh in her reactions to Dorothy's naughtier exploits. Although I do agree Dorothy needs manners and to learn some basic commands, I don't want her education to be doggie boot camp! I've decided we should check out local dog classes together before signing up, and I want to know what you think would be the best approach. Many advertise "positive reinforcement," and this sounds good to me, but my wife thinks it won't work and is just "bribery." Is it necessary to break a dog's spirit in order to train it? Please give your opinion so I can try to sway my wife there might be better ways!

I'm glad to hear you are trying to figure out the best means for training your puppy and that you are investigating your options. When puppy owners decide to begin obedience training, an important concern is where to go and what methods to use. Dog training methods seem to be getting better; harsh tactics and loud barked-out commands are being replaced by more and more programs that are instead based on canine psychology and positive reinforcement. Many pet owners would agree: The swing from traditional punitive "command and correct" obedience training, where "Master" showed the dog "who's boss," over to positive reinforcement is a definite improvement! While for many "positive reinforcement" has become synonymous with "the better way", there are still many dog trainers who employ old-school force tactics and punishment-based methods. And they themselves are reinforced, because for some dogs, heavy-handed tactics actually seem to work. What many people don't realize is a lighter touch also would have worked and with less damage to the overall relationship and the dog's trust and confidence in humans. I have heard students occasionally defend their punitive methods, basing their position on the statement, "The dog learned its lesson and doesn't make that mistake anymore." I rebut: "You can drive a nail with a jackhammer, but there are better tools that also will do the job with less damage and more accuracy." In dog training, the damage usually is a canine emotional basket case— the direct result of insensitive, unnecessarily brutal methods of "training."

Properly used, positive reinforcement is not "bribery"; it is a predictable reward or positive result the dog associates with its own actions. Waiting for the right moment to positively reinforce allows sequences to be built, and associations to be made, which the dog will seek to repeat. An example would be to wait until a dog sits to open a door or pet it. The result, which the dog desires, is positive reinforcement for sitting; therefore, the dog will want to sit, more and more quickly and willingly, as it learns "I do this to get that." Punishment is unnecessary; simply withholding the positive reinforce until the dog gets things right helps it want to be right again!

"Positive reinforcement" can be anything a dog wants at a given moment. Although a food reward may be compelling to some dogs in all situations, and to most dogs at least in some situations, it isn't necessarily the best positive reinforcer at all times. Other positive reinforcers actually may be perceived as even more positive and motivating than food in certain situations. Some things that can be used to reinforce dog behavior positively include: touch, freedom, play, possessions, food, rest, success.

The most important thing to keep in mind in dog training: The end does not justify the means. It is within the process of training where our relationships with our pets are either strengthened or broken. I hope your wife can be convinced there are better ways, which will not only help Dorothy gain better control but better trust and confidence as well!


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