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Training resolutions for the New Year

It's easier to train behaviors you want than deal with ones you don't.
It's easier to train behaviors you want than deal with ones you don't.
Photo by Stephanie Colman

As we begin the New Year, chances are each of us has resolved to change one or more things in our lives. Spending more time with family and friends, eating better and getting more exercise and taking steps to achieve a financial goal are common resolutions shared by many.

Making resolutions is about changing behavior. As dog lovers, we may strive to include our furry friends in our resolution-making for the year, seeking to curb problem behaviors in our pets such as jumping on visitors, not coming when called or inappropriate chewing. However, before we can effectively change the problem behaviors of our canine companions, we must first be willing to change our behavior by changing how we view the problems in the first place, shifting our focus from the problem to the solution. This can easily be done by making the following New Year's Training Resolution:

Rather than setting out to train your dog *not* to do things (jumping, chewing, running away, etc.), endeavor to train yourself to recognize what you'd like your dog *to* do instead, and then take the necessary steps to create and reward those behaviors. For example, rather than say, "I don't want my dog to jump on visitors as they walk in the front door," decide that, "I want my dog to do a down-stay on a mat nearby as guests walk in." Instead of, "I don't want my dog to run away when I let him off the leash," decide that, "I want my dog to come when I call him, even when he's distracted." Focusing on what you don't want backs you into a corner and does little to improve the situation for either of you. Further, simply asking a dog *not* to do something doesn't give him any information about how to make a better choice in the future.

For every behavior we dislike in our dogs, we can identify an alternate behavior that we would prefer. Through training and management, we can set our dogs up to practice - and be rewarded for - behaviors that we approve of, and in the process, find that the original problem behavior has been greatly reduced, or in many cases, even completely eliminated. Why? Because behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated. If your dog is busy doing the right thing, there's less time available to him to practice the wrong thing. Everybody wins!

This type of proactive training approach is a cornerstone of reinforcement-based training programs. Effective and humane dog training is simple, but it's not easy. It requires time, effort, patience, and above all, consistency. The following tips can help:

Know what you want. Be Specific. Decide early on what behaviors you do and do not find acceptable. Be sure to reach an agreement within the family. Nothing confuses a dog more than inconsistency.

Pick a realistic goal behavior. Like people, dogs have individual strengths and weaknesses. Age, breed type and level of previous training are all important considerations when determining how best to troubleshoot and train desired replacement behaviors. Look for behaviors your dog naturally exhibits that can be developed in such a way as help meet your goal. For example, if your dog is obsessed with retrieving, you or your guests might try tossing him a tennis ball upon entering the house, thus giving him something to do other than jumping on people.

Walk before you run! When training a new skill, it's important to break the behavior down into small pieces that will allow the dog to achieve a high rate of success. Start simple and gradually increase the degree of difficulty.

Set *everyone* up for success. As you train the new desired behavior, make every effort to keep your dog from practicing the old, unwanted behavior. Behaviors that are reinforced will be repeated. This is true both for things *we* actively reward, as well as behaviors we may not like, but which the dog finds to be rewarding.

By focusing your efforts on training what you want and preventing what you don't, you'll increase the opportunities to reward correct behavior (thus insuring its recurrence) and less time and energy reprimanding your dog for doing the wrong thing. Training then becomes a less stressful and mutually rewarding bonding experience for both dog and owner.

It's also a great idea to enroll in a training class.  Well run training classes are fun for both you and your dog, and are a great way to get ongoing help and support for canine problem-solving!  For group classes in the San Fernando Valley, check out J9's K9s Dog Training, with locations in Granada Hills, Canoga Park and Van Nuys.


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