February is Responsible Pet Owners Month, a time to “…take a close look at how you meet your animal friend’s needs.” (Nationaltoday.com, 2022). For new puppy parents, training Your New Puppy, using rewards-based training methods, is a fun way to strengthen your bond through collaborative understanding. With that in mind, it helps to understand a little more about how puppies learn.
Living with Inquisitive Canines – Learning Paths
Learning is a lifelong process for everyone — both people and dogs! When living with inquisitive canines, consider that at all times, we are training, managing, compromising and/or accepting. And, starting out on the right paw in each of these areas, from the beginning, helps save resources – especially the emotional ones. So, teach your puppies well; they are like little sponges, soaking up all the knowledge and experiences around them!
The beginning of any good training plan begins with understanding how your students learn best. So, let’s start with two common ways inquisitive pups absorb information and transform this information into behaviors. A look at learning paths – learning by association and learning by consequence – can help you lovingly teach puppies what you want and what you expect, while also teaching the skills they will need to thrive in our human world.
Positive Associations and Positive Conditioned Responses
You might recall, in the previous post on Loose Leash Walking, we discussed how to help your new puppy acclimate to his walking gear:
“With the leash and harness in sight, give your puppy a few treats. Then hide the gear. The flow of treats stops when the gear disappears. Repeat a few times until your inquisitive canine is delighted by the appearance of the walking equipment. Once you have this positive conditioned response, you can begin getting him dressed.”
Now, let’s take it a step further. In addition to getting pups comfortable with wearing harnesses, it’s never too early to start getting them used to necessary husbandry behaviors, such as nail trims and dental health. Let’s look at training for this type of cooperative care. Cooperative Care, as it relates to dog training, is an approach that allows dogs to vote with their paws — they are allowed to say “Yes” or “No thank you.” They are given the opportunity to participate in the training, or, if feeling stressed or uncertain, they have the ability to walk away from the situation. They are in control of their own choices and own environment, not the other way around.
A common example of training for cooperative care is teaching a stationary chin rest for a specific amount of time, such as a few minutes. Rather than being forcibly restrained -creating an unpleasant association with the procedure- the puppy (or dog of any age) learns to stand still with their chin resting on something stationary which allows them to be examined or groomed. Should the dog feel uncomfortable, they can walk away. With proper training and preparation, dogs find it more pleasurable to participate in the activity because of developing a positive conditioned response and having a sense of familiarity, which is a win-win for all!
Cooperative Care training aligns with a force-free approach. Dogs who are given the opportunity to make their own choices are often less stressed and more enthusiastic about participating, even if the situation might be considered emotionally challenging, such as having their nails trimmed, teeth brushed, or being examined by a veterinarian.
The Science of Consequences
In dog training, keep in mind that consequences drive behavior, not the request.Some pet parents might have been told, or understand that to mean, that they should punish a puppy to teach when a behavior is unacceptable. However, if your goal is to share your life and home with a family dog who is eager to listen to you and offer desired behaviors, you can start by building and maintaining a mutually trusting canine-human relationship and providing consequences your pup likes and wants, instead of harsh consequences.
A loving, highly effective way to teach dogs (or any animals) is to use rewards to reinforce desired behavior (food, toys or real-life rewards). Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, so when puppies are rewarded for behaviors we do want, they are more likely to perform those behaviors, while less likely to perform the unwanted ones.
On the other hand, “correction-based” training places emphasis on the behaviors you don’t want. Using physical corrections and aversive training tools such as choke, prong, shock and Citronella collars can result in injury; pain; fear-related behavioral side-effects; decreased learning (stress can lead the dog to shut down); and can harm your relationship with your puppy.
A 2021 article about successful communication between parents and (human) children, highlights the similarities between species when it comes to learning paths for behavior change:
“Enforcing punishment might help you feel like you have a sense of control, but research shows that not only does it hurt your relationship with your kid, it’s also an ineffective tool for changing behavior.
Although it may briefly stop a meltdown, it doesn’t inspire positive behavior or teach kids what to do. Plus, the more parents threaten, the more kids lie and hide problems that they may need help with.” (Stixrud, W., et al., 2021).
So, with a bit of learning theory in mind, we’d like to share our top tips for how responsible pet guardians can help their puppies grow into happy, well-adjusted family dogs:
- Use this time to your advantage to help your puppy develop problem-solving skills.
- Help build self-confidence through training, learning, and mental stimulation.
- Apply the strategies learned in training sessions to real-life situations.
- Use methods that focus on understanding canine behavior so that you can successfully teach your dog good manners through techniques that reward and motivate.
- Understand the basic physical and mental needs of your puppy, and how to provide for those needs.
- Understand how dogs learn, how they communicate, and learn to recognize and foster their normal, species-specific behaviors.
- Focus on prevention by teaching puppies what you do want, motivating them to make good behavior choices, thereby preventing having to fix things down the road.
“Responsible Pet Owners Month reminds us that our pets are not…toys or accessories; we have an obligation and responsibility to take excellent care of them.” (Nationaltoday.com, 2022). As loving, responsible pet parents, when we take the time to understand how puppies learn, we are better able to provide for their overall physical and mental well-being, using effective, humane methods. Our puppies bring us joy, love and lots of laughs. Let’s work to enhance and enrich their lives, so they can thrive as treasured family members.
Here’s to starting off your inquisitive canine’s learning journey on the right paw!
Responsible Pet Owners Month-February 2022. (2022). Nationaltoday.com. https://nationaltoday.com/responsible-pet-owners-month/
Stixrud, W. and Johnson, N. (2021, Sep 23). Stop saying these 4 phrases to your kids, says neuroscientist—here’s how the most successful parents teach self-discipline. cnbc.com. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/23/stop-saying-these-phrases-to-your-kids-says-neuroscientist-and-how-successful-parents-communicate.html
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