An article with thepack.in on training and rewards
Once you’ve learnt how to understand your dog’s behaviour, you can identify behaviours you would like to correct or enhance.
I’d like to point out that behaviour that’s problematic for you may not be so for someone else. Let’s look at barking through the night — someone living in an apartment complex may need to address it, but for someone living on a farm, this may be useful in keeping other animals away. Similarly, some people are absolutely okay with their dogs jumping to greet guests, while others may disallow jumping completely. So, problematic vs unproblematic behaviour can be subject to the dog parent’s preferences and needs to be addressed accordingly.
All dog parents want their dogs to be well-behaved, even if the definition varies from person to person. So, how do we set our dogs up for success when it comes to behaviour? Like it or not, there’s one surefire way — training!
Training a dog helps you accomplish the obvious goals of teaching them commands and working through more complex issues such as lunging, separation anxiety, etc. It serves as mental enrichment for the dog — they use their brain to understand what is expected from them. It also strengthens your communication and overall relationship by making them work for you and check in with you from time to time.
The training ideology spectrum:
Training methods and ideologies exist on a spectrum. There are positive and negative reinforcements and positive and negative punishments (you can find training quadrants online for a clear idea). As such, training can be aversive, positive, or anywhere in between. Namratha Rao from thepack.in says that there is no consistency across the training industry for such labels. These labels are often misunderstood as absolutes — even negative or positive training ideologies have grey areas. So, you will have to meet the trainer and understand how they train.
Aversive trainers often use punishment, choke or prong collars, hitting and/or yelling — methods that form a negative association with undesirable behaviour. Some working dogs (do not confuse this with working breeds) may be trained with some amount of aversives to set them up for success in their real life of working through various types of distractions. Most pet dogs never find themselves in such situations, so they can be trained using non-aversive methods. This method is high-risk — if done incorrectly, it can lead to injuries and reactivity (more on reactivity below). The trainer’s experience goes a long way in ensuring that the delicate line of balance is toed and the dog goes through training without becoming reactive. Dog parents are not equipped to use such methods by themselves, and they should never train using them without an expert.
Positive training is at the other end of the spectrum. This ideology believes that your dog’s good behaviour should be reinforced through positive association (treats, positive feedback, etc.). So instead of punishing bad behaviour, they focus on rewarding good behaviour so that your dog is encouraged to repeat it. Positive trainers believe that every behaviour — good or bad — stems from an inherent need in the dog. If their needs are met and good behaviour is reinforced, bad behaviour will not occur.
Somewhere around the middle of our training spectrum, we find trainers that call themselves ‘balanced trainers.’ These trainers use mild aversive methods to correct bad behaviour along with positive reinforcements for desirable behaviour. They believe that a dog cannot be trained through fear.
Namratha says that reactivity in a dog is just the tip of the iceberg, a symptom of an underlying emotional state. Your dog may be reactive when they are scared, excited, have a high chase instinct, lack appropriate training, etc. Pay attention to the situation in which your dog is becoming reactive; it can help you understand the cause of their reactivity and address it with a trainer.
Not all reactive behaviour is aggressive, and vice versa. While a reactive dog may just be scared, an aggressive dog can have the intent to bite. It is necessary to make this distinction so that training is successful. Dogs are not meant to bite, so a dog will only bite when they have been pushed too far. If a dog bites a trainer during training, it is because of a mistake on the trainer’s end. They need to evaluate the training method and change it if required.
Being the alpha:
Several uninformed people use being the Alpha dog as an excuse to beat dogs into submission or scare them into being ‘docile.’ The alpha theory has been thrown out of the window often, and it is widely believed that dominance training causes more harm than good. It is important to note that the whole ideology is very gendered and is conflated with the orthodox idea of masculinity — power, control and violence. Luckily, awareness around this is increasing, and even trainers who use aversives are rejecting this particular school of thought.
The foundation of training
Regardless of the goal, you will always start training with Basic Obedience Training. Namratha says that every trainer will define basic obedience differently, but it is the foundation of any training. It covers your basic commands such as sit, stay, place, come, etc., along with the basics of dog body language. Understanding dog body language is essential to empower humans to train, communicate, and troubleshoot with their dogs for the rest of the dogs’ life. Most trainers include toilet training and leash walking, especially for puppies.
Namratha advises dog parents to practice basic obedience outside the house too. Distractions are plenty outside, and the environment cannot always be controlled. During this time, you can build a solid Yes/No foundation (from experience, this is especially helpful in keeping your dogs from snacking while on walks). You can teach your dog what your tone and body language mean — the verbal and physical feedback needs to be understood by your dog.
Some dog parents choose to just train their dogs till here, and their dogs go on to live happily and confidently. Other dog parents use this as a base to build upon. This could be to train the dog as a working dog, address more complex issues, teach the dog tricks and agility, etc.
One part of basic obedience training that is not very common in India but is slowly gaining ground is Crate Training. Namratha says that the decision to crate train your dog should be based on your individual dog, the family and the size of your house; merely shoving the dog in a crate will not work. She also says that crates do not fix problems, but when done correctly, crate training can be a helpful tool to address issues. In busy households, crates can be a safe space for senior dogs, reactive dogs, and dogs recovering from illness, injury or surgery. Shutting the crate may not always be required.
A downside of crate training can be the dog guarding the crate. The parent should read the dog’s body language and proceed while crate training them. This can be tricky, and it is advisable to crate-train your dog with help from a professional so that you are equipped to handle such situations. You can crate train your dog at any stage of their life but remember that it takes weeks to months for dogs to be completely okay with it.
All training is enforced and imbibed through feedback. Feedback can be markers like the sound of a clicker — clickers are useful for consistency when multiple people are training the same dog. However, it usually takes the form of rewards (markers are often followed by one).
Rewards build a positive association with the command and listening to the human. They can include treats, toys, verbal and physical reinforcement and play. Most dogs are food motivated, so training them with food seems like an obvious choice. If your dog is trained with food, ensure you carry food when you go outside to consistently reward desirable behaviour. However, what happens when treats aren’t around?
Namratha encourages dog parents to explore other rewards instead of starting to train with food and encourages pet parents using treats to wean their dogs off treats and onto something else.
So, how do you choose a reward? There is no best reward for any situation. It depends upon the dog and the context. Pet parents should observe how their dog reacts in various circumstances and choose accordingly. For example, if your dog is in a mood to play, they may respond better to playing tug as a reward and overlook food rewards. In such a situation, if you keep pushing treats to your dog, you may set them up for failure at that task.
When to stop training?
According to Namratha, training and rewards are essential and lifelong — you should not take your dog’s good behaviour for granted and stop training and reinforcement. Your dog may stop listening to you. She recommends 5 minutes of training daily, even for well-adjusted dogs.
Training is a form of mental enrichment for your dog. Your dog should get to use their brain beyond walks, regardless of age and breed. In addition to training, you can scatter feed your dog, offer them a kong or engage them in nose work (e.g. sniffing out treats) to keep their mind at work.
Training is not just a way to teach your dog party tricks; it is a dedicated time of the day to work on your communication with your dog. It allows you to learn your dog’s body language and check in with them daily, building trust and confidence, resulting in a well-adjusted dog and a happy dog parent.
This article is part 2 of 3 of a series around understanding and managing behaviour in dogs, written in collaboration with thepack.in.
thePack.in is a Bangalore-based start-up working towards helping people and dogs live happier lives together. They bring together India’s top dog behaviourists, trainers, and veterinarians on their platform to educate parents from the convenience of their homes. From day-to-day challenges of toilet training and puppy biting to complex behavioural and medical issues, thePack’s experts are there to support you throughout your journey. After all, it takes a Pack to raise a pet!
A special shoutout to Namratha Rao, one of the splendid canine behaviourists at thepack.in, and to Aditi Naik, a part of thePack’s Social Media team, for making this collaboration easy, seamless and fun! Namratha is a certified canine trainer and behaviour consultant, working with dogs professionally since 2013. She runs Pawsitive Tales, and generously shared her wisdom with me for this article. You can reach out to her via Instagram or book a consult with her here. Aditi runs She By The Snout — a pet sitting service in Bangalore and can be contacted on Instagram.