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What you need to know about positive dog training

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Training is an important part of any dog’s life and It’s important for many reasons, including providing your dog with opportunities for positive mental experiences and challenges, helping them to understand what behaviours you want or don’t want them to engage in, and, when done properly, strengthens the bond between you and your furry family member.

When it comes to training your dog, not all methods are created equal, and some strategies can even be harmful to your dog’s wellbeing. Read on to find out the type of training we recommend.

Reward, never punishment.

Training should be a positive and enriching experience for you and your pup, and reward-based training is vital to this. The RSPCA believes that dogs should be trained using techniques designed to help them develop and maintain acceptable behaviours by using their natural instincts and positive reinforcement.

Reward-based training is very effective as it sets your dog up to succeed and consistently rewards them for performing the desired behaviour (for example coming when called, walking safely on leash or sitting on command). It is important not to react negatively with harsh words or punishment in instances where your dog doesn’t perform the behaviours you want in the way you want or displays an unwanted behaviour.

Rewards can be in the form of treats, positive praise, gentle affectionate pats, or even a combination. Most importantly, reward-based training is an enjoyable experience for your dog and can positively enhance your bond. It is important to watch your dog’s body language throughout the training so you can adjust how you train and reward to make the experience the most enjoyable possible for your dog and this will result in enthusiastic cooperation and participation.

What about unwanted behaviours?

Every dog is different, and some may exhibit undesirable behaviours, such as jumping or climbing on furniture, especially in their puppy stage. In reward-based training, the idea is not to give attention to unwanted behaviours, if your dog is not rewarded for a behaviour they will tend to stop doing it as they make the association between desired behaviour and a reward, they tend to want to engage in that behaviour again to get more rewards. Sometimes if guardians react negatively to unwanted behaviour by yelling or getting angry, they may end up reinforcing the behaviour unintentionally, as dogs will perceive these reactions as attention, and for some dogs any form of attention from their person is better than none at all.

I’ve heard about dominance training …

Unfortunately, many popular dog training methods center on establishing dominance over dogs, with pet guardians as the alpha or dominant member of the ‘pack’. Dominance training assumes most unwanted behaviours are due to dogs trying to be dominant and the way to solve behavioural issues is to establish dominance as the pack leader over the dog. However, these assumptions have been proven incorrect and can be harmful to the bond you share with your dog.

Dominance training can pose serious welfare problems as many methods involve using aversive training techniques such as staring your dog down, or other forms of punishment that can cause fear, pain, and distress. Aside from being harmful to your furry friend, these methods tend not to address the underlying cause of unwanted behaviours can actually make the problem worse.

Just like you, your dog is an individual and mastering desired behaviours may take some more time than others. Try not to measure the success of training simply by fast results, but rather the positive benefits to your dog’s wellbeing and the enjoyment you both get from training together. The RSPCA recommends booking your dog into a reward-based puppy school (or training classes for older dogs) which are important for socialisation as well. Happy training!

For more information, you can visit the RSPCA Knowledgebase.

This piece was originally published in Australian Community Media newspapers.

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