Lots of sources are saying people have acquired lots of new pets during the pandemic, in many cases stripping shelters bare. What a great thing.
Too many new owners, however, get the pet, bring it home and then they both stare at each other asking, “What do we do now?”
In the case of dogs, how you start a puppy out makes all the difference in the world going forward. Beginning at about 8 weeks, you can teach them the basics of “come,” “sit” and “stay” pretty easily.
OK, I know: There are many television shows featuring people who are pet “whisperers.” What you see on the highly edited pieces featuring these men and women is shall we say, “highly distilled and made-for-TV.”
With very few exceptions, there is only one method of training that has been scientifically proven to be the most successful for both people and dogs — positive reinforcement. In short terms, this training works through providing rewards for desired behaviors. Just look up “positive reinforcement training” online and you will find many credible sources excluded by space here.
Last week, I drove by a young woman I’d seen before with about the cutest puppy one could imagine. The thing looks like a ball of fluffy fur spotted at random with various colors almost like it had been spray-painted.
The time before, she had the juvenile on a leash and while he wasn’t fighting it, per se, he was trying to be a little boss and carry some of the leash in his mouth. From his point of view, this was a new toy and a new game.
This time, she had the pup off leash trying to make him come to her. He was staying just out of reach. Whenever she took a step, he backed up and resumed the playful puppy pose with his head and front paws down and his rump in the air.
She was getting frustrated, and he was having a wonderful time. She changed her command from a kissy sound and a hand clap to a more forceful command of “come,” and a pointed index finger motioning to her feet. Meanwhile he was having great fun and the “come,” command was lost in confusion. The first step in all this is to determine which rewards work best for your puppy. Some puppies are motivated with a piece of their normal kibble. Others might like a tastier morsel, referred to as a high-value treat. For them, it might be a bit of cheese for example.
A word of warning — finding a treat does not mean increasing the volume of what you give them as a reward. Keep it small. A trainer once rightly told me; one can make 100 treats out of a single, sandwich-size slice of cheese.
Some pups may like a food reward, but others may not. Or it may work for a while and then they start to outthink the owner. In either case, search for something else that motivates them like a favorite toy followed by gushing praise when they have done a good job.
Most military and law enforcement dogs work for toys, not treats. There are a number of practical reasons for this. Their trainers often use high-pitched voices for rewards and normal tones for commands. This is a form of reward, too.
Depending on where the dog originated, or its initial training, the soldier or officer may use a foreign language for commands. This layers a second safety net over the dog’s behavior to keep them focused.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.
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