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Why Negative Reinforcement Doesn’t On Your Dog

A small dog stairs at its owner's hand, expecting a treat

If you want to see a difference you have to teach, in a way that your dog understands.

So often, when it comes to dog training, all too many people suggest negative reinforcement as effective tool for training your dog. Last year, Hugo nearly pulled me across the road and towards the park, in front of busy traffic. When we reached the other side, an elderly lady who approached me and told me that I should get a rolled up newspaper and hit him on the nose if he misbehaves. I was flabbergasted – that’s not how you train your dog!

Dog Psychology

The first thing we need to understand is that dogs live in the moment. Your dog does not connect reason in the same way that you do. Slapping your child on the bottom may work to stop them sticking their fingers into electrical sockets, but dogs don’t apply the same logic.

For your dog, what he is doing and and what you did to him aren’t linked. If I hit you over the head with a newspaper when you put your slippers on, you would wonder why I had such an issue with you putting your slippers on. You would be upset and confused, but it wouldn’t stop you putting your slippers on. In this regard, your dog is the same. To him, what he is doing is just right – doggy right to him!

Now imagine that, for several weeks, I hit you over the head every time you put your slippers on. No explanation (or not a logical one, anyway) and no suggestion of anything that I’d like you to do instead. What are you likely to do?

Assuming you don’t call the police on me (because that would be logical, of course), you’re either likely to get rid of the newspaper, become afraid of me or at worst, attack me.

This is what you are encouraging your dog to do.

If you want to see a difference, you have to teach him what you expect, in a way that your dog understands.

Why Reward-Based Training Works

In the time that I have owned a dog, I have seen a monumental shift in his behaviour through reward-based training. Rather than hitting him for doing something that I don’t like, I treat him when he does the thing that I want. You can make even the most vocal dog become silent with the ‘Quiet’ command and the promise of a tasty treat.

When it comes to heel training on our way to the park, Hugo is a bit more tenacious and so I need to take extra steps. Unluckily for me, we live quite close to the park, on the opposite side of the busy road. Unfortunately for safety-conscious humans, dogs have no perception of busy roads.

For that, I have bought the Halti head harness. With a gentle pull I can lead Hugo’s head and lead him where I want him to go. Although Hugo will now walk with his head down and and with as much might as his little body can muster to get him to the park in good time, he at least can’t pull me anymore.

There is absolutely no reason or need EVER to hit, harm or shock your dog!

Stop, Drop & Don’t Alpha Roll

One of the most disturbing dog training ‘techniques’ that I have heard of and seen being used is the ‘Alpha Roll’, from dog trainer Cesar Millan. Although I am sure Cesar has managed to train out many destructive techniques in some dogs, I do not agree or believe that the techniques he uses are at all effective. It takes only one alpha roll from an inexperienced handler for an anxious pup to take the owner’s face off. These techniques are distressing for the dog, and exceptionally dangerous for the owner. Stop immediately and turn your back to the dog. When you disengage with your dog, you take your attention away and your dog realises that you are no longer engaging with them. What they are doing no longer seems fun, and so the behaviour usually stops. If they have an item, such as a sock, let it go. It stops being a new favourite tug toy quite quickly after that.

Don’t Alpha Roll My Dog, Either!

It’s not happened too often, but I have seen a few people alpha roll my dog for something as relatively small as a growl. Although a growl is still a serious matter, it is important to understand that a growl is not the same as a bite, it is a warning. If my dog growls, he is probably afraid of something that you are doing and wants you to stop. If my dog is afraid, flipping him on his back will only reinforce his fear. If you don’t know the dog, never consider the alpha roll technique. I’ve known Hugo from eight months old and he has never bitten anyone. He is, however, very anxious and eager to please and responds exceptionally well to reward-based training.

For me personally (and many dog trainers), reward-based training is the only way to go. When it comes to celebrity dog trainers, there is nobody I quite like better than It’s Me Or The Dog‘s Victoria Stilwell. Her reward-based, insightful approaches should be promoted to every dog owner, every time!

Why Quality Treats Matter

In my time meeting other dog owners, I have met all too many people who tell me that reward-based training doesn’t work. When I ask them what treats they are using, they show me a low grade, low quality, virtually scentless treat. Let me ask you this,

Would you leave your slippers off for a cheap piece of chocolate, or a smooth, high quality Belgian chocolate truffle?

The same logic applies. To want to do what you ask, your dog needs to be enticed by the reward. Some of the best rewards include:-

Experiment and find what works and start slow with short and frequent training sessions. Your dog won’t understand what you expect from him immediately, but the sooner you stop the hitting and start the rewarding, the better the relationship will be for you and your dog.

Have you tried reward-based training before? What behavioural problems did you manage to fix? Let me know in the comments!

Wishing you all the best for you and your furry friend!

Until next time,

Stay safe & have fun.

Helen xx


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