Make your dog happy. Train force free.

We can promote animal welfare by making learning a rewarding experience.

A happy white dog says "I like to work for food"

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The risks of using punishment in dog training

By now, many people are familiar with the idea that using aversives to train dogs can have side effects. Studies show a correlation between aversive techniques (such as hitting, pinning, leash jerks and shock) and behaviour problems like aggression (Herron et al 2009; Casey et al 2014). 

One study found dogs in a training class that used aversives showed signs of stress and were less likely to look at their owners than in a similar class that used positive reinforcement instead (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).

The benefits of reward-based dog training

Rewards bring benefits: dogs with a history of reward-based training are better able to learn a new task (Rooney and Cowan, 2011). Nicola Rooney and Sarah Cowan say this may work “by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” 

If you are used to training with rewards, you know that look of happy anticipation on your best friend’s face. (Incidentally, the same study found dogs previously trained with punishment were less playful with their owner and less likely to go up to a new person).

There’s increasing recognition that good animal welfare includes giving animals positive experiences that cause positive affective states. 

In other words, it’s about making animals happy. Training your dog gives them control: “If I do this behaviour, I’ll get a nice reward.” They enjoy it and become better learners.

Last year I wrote about a study by Ragen McGowan et al that found dogs prefer to work to earn a reward, rather than just be given the reward. The study had an ingenious design in which dogs were taught a set of tricks using some novel equipment. Sometimes they got the reward for doing the trick; other times they just got the reward anyway. 

Dr. McGowan told me, “Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task… do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that many dogs also experience this ‘Eureka Effect.’ In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs.”

Food rewards are a great way to train your dog. #ForceFree #Reward-based

How you can use rewards in dog training

Giving dogs opportunities to learn is good for them. 

You don’t have to pick a complicated task; begin with sit or shake paw before you build up to difficult tricks. 

If you’re new to training, it’s easy to get started. All you need is food that your dog likes: chicken, cheese, hot dog, peanut butter cookies, tuna fudge, roast beef... See what your dog prefers (and adjust meals as necessary). If you like, you can use a clicker. 

Training is like any other skill: it takes patience, practice and consistency. If you want to improve your technique, you could sign up for classes with a local force free trainer. Be warned: you might find you and your dog have a new hobby! 

Other ways to make your dog happy may include petting, walks, hiking, swimming, paddling, fetch, tug, puzzle toys, chew toys, agility, nose work, playtime with other doggie friends, rolling in stinky stuff (the dog, not you!), and so on… 

If you want to give your dog 'lightbulb' moments, pick something that involves problem-solving, like training for food rewards (i.e. positive reinforcement). Otherwise, any activity you both enjoy will make your dog happy.

It’s important to understand the risks of using aversive methods, especially if you are contemplating using them, but it’s only part of the story. 

The other part is that training can be enjoyable – for you and your canine friend – and that's good for your dog's welfare. 

Learning should be a rewarding experience. Let’s make it so!

If you’d like a photo of your happy dog to feature on Companion Animal Psychology, tweet it to me with the hashtag #makeyourdoghappy, or share it under this post on Facebook. The best will be included in a future post of reader's photos of happy dogs. Please make sure you have copyright of the photo before posting.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004  
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011  
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

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