Practice makes perfect!

Practice make perfect – But only perfect practice makes perfect! Don’t let your dog practice bad habits!

When people get a dog, they envision a well-mannered companion with whom they can share their life. Many acknowledge and see value in using positive reinforcement training rather than harsh discipline, but then don’t know how to react when their dog misbehaves. They don’t want to correct their dog and think ignoring bad behaviour is the only alternative.

Dogs learn new behaviours best when they are only rewarded for correct choices and wrong choices are ignored – corrections hinder the learning process.

In real life situations, however, ignoring unwanted behaviour usually results in some subtle or obvious payoff for your dog and doesn’t work to stop it. If you ignore counter surfing, even the smell of a juicy steak can keep the behaviour strong. If you ignore your dog running off after a squirrel, the thrill of the chase alone will perfect squirrel chasing behaviour. Ignoring has no impact and your dog will have an opportunity to practice the bad behaviour…and practice makes perfect!

In some situations ignoring undesirable behaviour can work, but only if there is NO payoff for your dog whatsoever. My own dog pawed at the sliding door the other day asking to come in. I walked away. If there is no reward then your dog likely won’t try the behaviour again. When my dog sat down I let her inside. In order for your dog to learn the right thing you have to manage the situations and environment that you expose them to. If the screen door was in danger of being pushed open, I might have reacted and the situation may have played out differently. Beware of situations where your dog may receive a payoff without you even realizing it – any type of reaction or attention or adrenalin is a reward.

Another drawback to ignoring undesirable behaviour or using corrections is that it doesn’t teach your dog what TO do. This is where positive reinforcement comes in.

Teach your dog some skills. Reward generously with whatever your dog finds rewarding. Start with chicken morsels and over time use life rewards such as a chance to play with you! With just a few tricks under your belt, you can ask your dog to respond and she will happily do so anytime, anywhere, and keep out of trouble.

If a situation arises that is clearly beyond your dog’s level of training do your best to prevent your dog from being inadvertently rewarded if, or when, they ignore your request. For example, if you are teaching your dog the come command, do it in a fenced yard so they can’t wander off to find their own rewards or so you don’t end up chasing them down the street – chasing can be a reward to some dogs for not listening. It is up to you to teach your dog the skills he or she needs to succeed.

Your dog is learning with every experience.  Manage what your dog is learning on their own and commit to training some life skills. Enjoy your well-behaved partner side by side and paw in hand!