Tips from the Trainer: Be Positive about Communication

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By Steve Kotowske

One of the most hotly contested issues in the dog world concerns training methods. I figured it would be a good time to insert my two cents, for what it’s worth. B.F. Skinner is a famous name that is thrown around quite a bit in the world of behavior studies. While Skinner once believed positive reinforcement was the key to success in behavior modification, he also said this a few years before he died in 1990, “We may know that certain things are going to happen, but knowing is not enough; action is needed.” It was his concession that the world cannot change just knowing a bad decision would bring about negative consequences, many have to experience them in order to change. He truly felt this was unfortunate. I think we can all agree that it is. Skinner realized that his theory was merely a utopian idea when considering the masses. This has, to this day, left dog trainers at odds with one another, and people confused at which method is best. I think it really depends on the individual dog being trained.

The first thing we must consider is how dogs learn in order to be able to teach them what we expect from them. Let’s just start with a basic concept. Most dogs like to play, and when dogs want to play with another dog they often have a higher pitched bark that sounds pretty happy. When dogs do not like something or someone they bark deeper – and when they really don’t like something, it gets even deeper and growly. So, if we want to best communicate with a dog that we tout as our fur-baby, dressed in holiday costumes, it would only make sense that we communicate in a softer manner. We actually do the same for personal protection dogs and working dogs. It only makes sense that we would do this rather than barking commands in an authoritative voice that naturally sounds like you are not happy. Did you catch that? No commands. It is time to rethink everything.

When we communicate properly, it is more likely to yield a positive response. We all want a perfect relationship with our furry pals. I often say that a good relationship has good communication, while a bad relationship has bad communication. You must communicate what you do not like, as well. This might be the time to use a little tougher tone or other correction to express displeasure. Some people call this negative, but Skinner knew it worked even if he preferred a positive reward system.

If you want a better relationship, stop barking commands at your dog. Convey your “expectation” and hold your dog to it. If you ask your dog to sit, he should sit until you release him from the position. Studies show that dogs can learn 200-250 words. One dog is on record as having learned over 1,000 words. Use your common words and your dog can learn what they mean fairly quickly. Use lots of praise when your dog gets it. This is the reward your dog truly seeks. A special treat here and there doesn’t hurt, but should be saved for building a relationship – like bringing home flowers or cooking a favorite meal.

Steve is the owner of What’s Up Dog? Obedience Training Center and is a Certified Obedience Trainer, Instructor.

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