Practicing Positive Discipline

By Dr Laurie Green

Practicing Positive Discipline
Written by Dr. Laurie Green

Things have changed a lot since you raised your last puppy 20 years ago. New understanding of animal behavior has led to a veritable revolution in the methods used to train most domestic animals, including horses and cattle. But the greatest amount of research has gone into man's best friend, and at long last we know how to treat our dogs with the gentle firmness they crave.

If you've been reading about parenting human children the past few years, you've probably heard a lot about "positive discipline." You've been told to catch your kids being good and reward them for it. The same principle applies to raising a puppy, and it works just as well as it does for kids.

Practicing Positive Discipline

Step One: Decide what behavior you want.

Step Two: Reward it.

Step Three: Ignore any behavior that is not the one you want.

Notice--we are not punishing the behaviors we don't want. Punishment is a form of attention, and attention is what dogs want most of all. They'd rather be yelled at or even hit with a rolled-up newspaper than be ignored. A behavior you ignore will go away faster than one you punish. A behavior you reward will happen more frequently.

Example: Do you want your dog to jump up on you in greeting? If not, what do you want him to do? If you want him to wriggle around happily but keep his paws on the ground, it's helpful to start modifying his behavior toward that end from the very first day you get him. (If he's already in the habit of jumping up, it's not too late--it'll just take longer for him to get the new idea!)

So you come into the room, and your puppy jumps on you. IGNORE IT. Keep walking. Don't say anything. If he gets no attention from you, there's no reason for the dog to keep jumping up. But don't forget Step Number Two. When your puppy finally has all four feet on the ground, immediately reward him by giving him attention. Now he has learned a valuable lesson. He has learned that jumping up gets him nowhere; and just as importantly, he has learned that standing squarely on the ground does get him attention.
Has he learned for once and for all not to jump up? Not yet. But if you consistently ignore his jumping, and consistently pet him and praise him when his feet are on the ground, he will jump up less and less, and stare at you adoringly from the floor awaiting your attention. (Which you will never fail to give him.)

One more example: If you are using a crate for housebreaking, first of all, good for you! Next, you probably don't want your puppy to whine and cry the whole time he's in the crate. OK, that's the behavior you don't want. So what do you do when he whines and cries? That's right-IGNORE IT. What is the behavior you do want? Silence? So only let him out of the crate when he's quiet. This can be trickier in practice than it sounds. It involves hiding behind corners and then running to the crate quickly before he starts that racket again. . . but if you are consistent about ignoring the noise and rewarding the quiet, pretty soon you'll have a reasonably quiet dog.

As you can see, it's necessary to decide what you want from your dog so you know when to praise and when to ignore. And if you make a mistake and yell instead of ignoring, well, the world isn't going to come to an end. You haven't ruined your dog for life. You'll just have to admit your mistake and start over again. Hey, these are dogs--they know we're only human!

So how do you intervene when you need to stop a behavior?

Yes, there are times when simply ignoring a behavior isn't enough. Sometimes you'll need to stop a behavior to prevent your dog from injuring itself or another, for example.
One of the most useful sounds you can learn to make is the puppy "arp!" This is a short high-pitched yipping sound similar to what puppies say to each other to indicate "stop!" This is how puppies learn their limits when playing with each other, and it works for you as well. It's a language puppies and dogs instantly recognize; it needs no translation.
If you've ever seen puppies play, you've seen how they tumble, chase and chew on each other. When one is playing too rough or biting too hard, the other will give out that short "arp" sound, which tells the other pup to back off, and it works. You'll hear that sound a lot as pups figure out what's OK and not OK with each other. It's the same sound a pup would make if someone accidentally stepped on his tail, for example. It's a very effective form of puppy "ouch!"

Unfortunately, once a pup goes to a new home, he no longer has a common language with which to communicate with his new pack. Learning the "arp" is an excellent way to interrupt undesirable behaviors that you can't simply ignore, and helps you set limits for your pup. This helps him quickly understand how to fit in with his new pack.

Here's how to use it effectively. Say your puppy is playing with you and starts chewing on you or your clothing. Immediately give a short high-pitched "arp!" Your pup will stop, but only briefly. As soon as she stops, withdraw whatever she was chewing on, and give her an acceptable substitute. Then praise her for chewing on the right thing. Or you can follow the "arp" with a command such as sit, and praise her for the sit. The important point is to immediately stop the undesired behavior, replace it with an acceptable behavior, and reward the right behavior. Be sure to spend as much time as possible catching her in the act of doing the right thing and rewarding that, so she won't be so busy trying out a variety of unwelcome behaviors just to get your attention!

It's also OK to train your pup or dog to a short, loud "No!" You can even pair the "no" with the "arp," saying "no" once immediately after saying "arp." Pairing something the pup already knows with a novel sound or gesture is how professional behaviorists train animals to respond to a variety of words or gestures. It's very useful. But remember, use "no" sparingly, and only if the pup or dog is doing something that really MUST be stopped (such as injury to itself or another), and cannot just be ignored. Too many "no's" will frighten, intimidate and often confuse a pup (just like with children). A few well-placed "no's" are much more effective than a constant stream of them.

So what other fun behavior modification things can you do?

When housebreaking your pup, keep repeating the same word over and over while she's outside for toilet time, until she actually goes. Then vigorously reward her. After a while, she'll go on command whenever she's outside and hears the magic word. This is very handy when the weather is foul. Be sure to make it a unique sound that she's not likely to hear often. You don't want her to respond while she's in the living room, for example.
· Pair her verbal commands such as "sit," "down," "stay" with hand signals these are usually taught in most obedience classes. Once she knows the behaviors you're trying to teach, and understands the association with particular hand gestures, you can show off all her terrific behaviors using just hand signals! (It's how the Hollywood dogs are trained to do complex behaviors onscreen).

Don't forget: Always use lots of rewards and patience when teaching new behaviors. Your pet will need to succeed at many "baby steps" to eventually get to the right behavior. Catch your dog in the act of doing the right thing and reward her enthusiastically. Make training sessions short and fun, and always end each training session on a positive note, so your dog will always be able to succeed.
Most important of all have fun with your training! When it's done with positive reinforcement, it's a game and a delight, not a chore!


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