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Dogs and Therapy #5: Learning Can be Fun for You and Your Dog

People who live with a dog and want to have a great relationship with that dog want the dog to be well behaved, but they don’t want to hurt their relationship to get there. Rather, they would like the learning process to be on that is enjoyable for both human and dog and one that helps them bond in a mutually therapeutic way. In my next several posts, I’m going to teach you the basics of animal learning: a bit of theory, a handful of definitions, and some techniques. With this information in hand, you will have a much greater understanding about your dog, about learning, and about how to help him or her learn in a positive way.

I do want to be clear about my perspective on training; some may even call it a bias. I am strongly opposed to the use of aversive training techniques such as the alpha roll, the use of shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, yelling, and physical punishment. Rather, I am in favor of using praise and rewards to achieve the desired results. If you are interested in a somewhat more technical treatment of this subject, you may wish to read my article "My Client Wants to be sure that his dog knows who is the alpha. Seriously?" soon to be published in print and online in the Chronicle of the Dog.

First, some definitions. A reinforcer is something that you administer (give to your dog or do for your dog) that makes it more likely that your dog will repeat the action or behavior that he or she did immediately before you administered the reinforcer. Reinforcers follow behaviors you want your dog to learn. There are two kinds of reinforcers: positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers: both increase the likelihood of the preceding behavior, but they do it in different ways. Positive reinforcers increase preceding behaviors by being presented. You tell your dog to sit; she sits; you say “What a good girl!,” and give her a tiny bit of cheese. Do this enough times, and she will eagerly sit whenever you ask her to do so. What if your lovable companion has a mind of his own when free in your (fenced in of course) back yard, and tends to ignore your whistling and calling him to return. You can begin by practicing recall in the house, advance to recall on a long lead, and then outside (in afenced in area, of course). Each time he returns when you call, offer that tiny bit of cheese or something else he likes a lot. Just as with the sitting, after enough repetition, he’s happily return when you call him. Both of these illustrate how positive reinforcement works. Next time, I'll write about negative reinforcement.
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