There’s a little secret that dog trainers know and use that only a few dog owners take advantage of.
It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s dead simple. This one thing can mean the difference between years of frustration and years of enjoyment with your dog. It requires no special knowledge, no advanced training, no equipment. It’s more powerful than any correction, “no,” or discipline.
It’s the power of noticing what your dog does right and reinforcing it in the moment.
People ask me how I teach my dogs to understand “No.” I disappoint every one of them when I answer that my dogs don’t know that word. “But how do you teach them what you want them to do without that word!?” they wonder. Easy: pay attention to my dogs when they do stuff I like. Take two seconds to praise them, play with them, or otherwise provide something they love when they’re doing the stuff I like.
The power of “yes” will beat 100 “no’s.”
Why notice the good stuff?
Dogs (and people) do what works. If chewing on the couch feels good to the dog, he’s not likely to quit chewing on the couch. Most people jump right into the “No” zone, skipping over the “yes.” Behavior is governed by rules, thankfully. There are five rules, but two of those rules apply specifically to this situation.
- Behavior that is reinforced will happen more often.
- Behavior that isn’t reinforced will likely go away.
Let’s take the couch chewing dog example a little further. If the dog is chewing on the couch, a clicker trainer is likely to find an appropriate chewable object (stuffed toy, rope toy, etc.) for the dog to chew on, redirect the sofa-chewing dog to the preferred object and then praise the heck out of the dog for putting his mouth on the dog toy. And we’ll make sure we notice and reward the dog every time he has a toy in his mouth. Because after all, the toy is what we want the dog to put in his mouth, not the sofa. And we’ll also be pretty darn sure to supervise the dog so he doesn’t get the opportunity to chew on the sofa when we’re not around.
We’re practically guaranteeing that the dog will choose the toy to chew on because we’ve paid so much attention to him every time he’s had the toy in his mouth. We can’t necessarily ignore the dog for couch chewing because that probably feels just as good to the dog as chewing on the toy. Because we can’t ignore it, we’ll do something a little different – we’ll distract and redirect the dog to the appropriate object, the toy. And we’ll also be sure that if we’re spending too much time distracting and redirecting, we’ll set some barriers up so the dog can’t get to the couch to chew on it until after we’ve gotten lots and lots of repetitions of praise and attention for chewing on the toys.
We aren’t stingy.
Dog trainers are generous with praise, play, and fun. It’s free! Give it away frequently! When raising puppies for service work, I start giving the puppy feedback right away about what things gets him attention and what things aren’t worth doing.
We look for the things that the puppy is doing that we really like. It’s much more fun to praise your dog than scold him, don’t you think? By paying attention to everything your dog does that you like, you’re setting the stage for a really fun life together, while making your job as teacher super easy and quick.
Here are some of the things dog trainers notice – and reinforce – that sometimes pet owners don’t even think about.
- When the dog has all four feet on the floor, he gets lots of fun attention – I’ll pet him, play with him, and praise him.
- When the dog picks up an appropriate toy, I’ll run over to play with him.
- When the dog goes to the door to go outside, I’ll praise him and quickly take him outside so he can go to the bathroom.
- When the dog looks at me, I will praise him, pet him.
If your dog is older, don’t worry – this works with any dog, no matter the age! It may take some retraining on your part to notice the good, but once you practice it for a week or two, you’ll want to do it because it feels so good!
For the next week, start to notice the things your dog does that are good (really, anything that isn’t bad is worth noticing). Praise your dog, pet your dog, play with your dog – do whatever your dog really likes so you can convey to your dog that he’s getting those good things because of what he did. The cause-effect part is important here: the dog needs to know that his actions produced the good stuff.
After the first week, if you haven’t already, start to drop out the corrections. See if you can reduce the “no,” “eh-eh,” “knock it off,” etc. Instead, if your dog is getting ready to misbehave, redirect him (“Fido, come over here” in a happy voice), get him involved in something appropriate, and praise him (or play, or give a treat, etc.) for following your lead.