Many dog owners, knowingly or unknowingly, use the psychological principles of operant conditioning to train their dogs. Operant conditioning is an analytical response to a given situation. If a dog owner reinforces behavior, it will persist.

Giving a dog a treat for sitting, lying down or staying is reinforcing positive behavior. The dog knows that if he obeys his owner’s command, he’ll receive a treat. His behavior is analytical: predictable, planned and deliberate. “If I sit, I’ll get a treat.”

However as the following anecdote illustrates, many dog owners don’t realize that they’re reinforcing negative behavior :

A smart, adorable Lab puppy named Taite loved to go on walks with his mom and dad. One day, Taite stood by the door, waiting to go out, and accidentally peed. When his owners noticed, they immediately took him outside, to show him where he should urinate.

The owners thought they were house training their puppy, but little Taite got a different message: “If I pee by the door, I’ll get to go outside!” It didn’t take long for Taite to pee by the door every time he wanted to go outside.

Taite’s story is a perfect example of his owners inadvertently reinforcing negative behavior. By taking him outside when he peed at the door, they were sending their puppy the message that his behavior was appropriate.

Any behavior, reinforced in any way, is bound to continue. The key is to be aware of: reinforce positive behaviors and eliminate the negative ones.

Basic Training

Dog training experts agree that several basic points should be kept in mind when introducing Rover to the ways of your household. These tips will help both you and your new dog avoid misunderstandings:

  • Keep training sessions short (no more than 15 minutes). As soon as the dog appears to lose interest, stop.
  • Start training as soon as your new dog arrives home. Don’t let him get settled into bad habits.
  • Invest in a decent training book. You’ll refer to it often.
  • Correct poor behavior and praise good behavior immediately. Small treats are effective in reinforcing your training message.
  • Be prepared with the proper equipment and treats.

Dog Training and Children

Older children can be quite enthusiastic about helping with dog training as it places them in a position of authority and they feel quite grown up. If you wish to involve your children in the training of a new pet, be sure to supervise carefully. Watch for consistency and for mixed messages.

A dog may feel confused if too many people participate in his training. One adult should be in charge of initial training, while other family members enforce the rules you’ve established for your dog. If children are unable to follow the rules you set down, you should put off letting them walk the dog on their own until your dog is fully trained and obedient.

Small children should never walk a dog by themselves. Training takes patience and younger children shouldn’t be expected to train a pet. Praise them for helping by walking on your right while your dog heels on the left. Don’t allow them to feed the dog random treats during training as they may inadvertently reward negative behaviors such as nipping or snatching treats out of their hands.

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