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The Four Loves of Positive Reinforcement

One of the best books I’ve ever read on human relationships is called The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The basic premise of the book is that each of us has a preferred “love language.” They are: quality time, gifts, words of affirmation, physical touch, and acts of service. It seems that everybody prefers one of these modes for both expressing love to others and also for receiving love. One of the main reasons that people who do love each other don’t always feel loved by the other is that they have different love languages.

To some extent we can apply this principle to dog training as well. Dogs definitely have preferences in terms of what kind of positive reinforcement is most meaningful to them. I usually ask my clients during our initial training session to rate these four forms of positive reinforcement for their dog:heart question

  • Treats
  • Toys
  • Praise
  • Physical touch

Using treats for a dog whose favored form of positive reinforcement is physical touch just doesn’t work as well.

Recently, I worked with two dogs with similar issues of inattentiveness and distractedness that demonstrate what I’m talking about. The first was a one-year-old male Golden Doodle. He had not only become resistant to learning the down command, but had become pretty obstinate about everything else as well. I referred to my client info form and saw that his preferred form of positive reinforcement was treats. We started giving him a treat for every success, and almost immediately he calmed down and focused. We began with the things he already knew so that he could experience some sweet success and then moved on to the down command. One word of caution: positive reinforcement should always be a reward, never a bribe.

The next morning I found myself in a similar situation with a six-month-old mixed-breed female. Her preferred mode of positive reinforcement is physical touch. This dog couldn’t care less about treats. I had her owner start petting her briefly each time she obeyed a command, and in no time she was calmer and focused on what we were teaching. Just as with correction, in order for positive reinforcement to be effective, we must know in advance exactly what behavior we are going to reinforce and make sure we time it so that the dog clearly understands the connection between her behavior and the reward.

What’s your dog’s love language?

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