Did your dog make it onto Santa’s naughty list in 2017? Never fear; you’re not alone.

It’s all about the communication – it’s easy to forget that dogs don’t speak human. Humans communicate primarily through verbal means. Dogs, and animals in general, use body language as their primary means of communication.

There is no Rosetta Stone for working through this verbal/non-verbal communication obstacle course.   However, there isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel, either. There are many ways to teach a dog new tricks. But there’s only one approach to consider – it needs to be done using positive reinforcement. Dolphin trainers can’t get their wards to offer behaviors by jumping in the water and hitting them when they get it wrong. They instead use a reward-based system to target a specific, desired behavior.

So, now you’re saying that’s great about dolphins. How does that apply to Fido? I say think about it from a dog’s perspective. You were just torn away from your family and dumped into an environment wherein your caretakers speak by non-verbal means. You are expected to assimilate and inherently know how to behave. When you get it wrong, whatever “wrong “ is, you are punished. How quickly would you start acting out? How quickly would you cringe at the mere thought of going to school to learn? Wouldn’t you be more willing to learn if every time you were asked to do something, you were given a reward (for me it would be a Snickers bar) if you got it right? When you got it wrong, nothing happened. You just had to instead use your cerebrum to think about how to alter your behavior to get the reward.

The learning/teaching method I just discussed is called operant conditioning. It has been shown through research that animals learn better and offer behaviors faster using this learning theory. They try to learn new behaviors rather than just becoming a reactive pupil.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. How does this apply to problem behaviors, you ask? Simple. We use training to teach the dog what we want it to do. We don’t use training to teach a dog what not to do. Teach incompatible behaviors. If Fido jumps on new visitors, teach him to go to “place,” which can be a bed, a rug or some other designated area away from the visitor. If Fido “goes to place” every time the door bell rings, can he be jumping on the new visitor at the same time? Nope. Incompatible behavior.

Training incompatible behaviors can be fun – it can include tricks and fun movements to spice it up a bit. The end result is that you don’t have a problem behavior anymore and you have a dog who loves it when new people come over. It’s a win-win!

All of the above works in helping your dog to have a fear-free veterinary visit as well. You first need to find your dog’s currency. For most, that’s food. For others it’s a tennis ball, good pets, or something similar.   Plan visits to the clinic for no reason. Stop by, give rewards, and leave. If needed, work up to more and more time in the office. Maybe next time try to get your dog’s weight on the scale (my dog runs to the scale now because she knows it’s treat time!). The next time have a staff member say hello and give rewards. For a lot of dogs, especially puppies, you can do several of these steps in one visit. For older and/or more anxious dogs, it might take a dozen trips to the office before Fido comes in excited to be here.

The time spent working towards fear-free visits is well worth it. When Fido comes in for wellness exams, or even if he is ill or injured, it makes it so much less stressful for him if all he has is pleasant memories. If he ever needs to be hospitalized, he won’t be terrified. That’s crucial for recovery and healing.

One quick note – it’s a certainty that an empty stomach is your best friend during training sessions. A hungry dog is a self-serving creature! Use it to your advantage. Nothing in life should be free.

The bottom line is that the primary reason behind dogs ending up in shelters and sometimes even euthanized is due to problem behaviors. It really doesn’t cost us much as their caretakers to help prevent that. It just takes time. Time is a precious commodity, but then again so is your best friend, Fido.

Now I’m off to have a Snickers. It’s my reward for writing this blog. Even *I* can be trained!

‘til next month,

Jessica Briggle


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