Helping Johnnie Decide to Be a Good Dog

The way animals learned is explained by science, based on how our brains works, and Johnnie is no different. We use three tools – management, positive reinforcement and negative punishment – to help Johnnie Cash be the best dog she can be.

When Johnnie does a behavior we like, we reward her. We often use a clicker to mark the desired behavior, followed with a treat. Her reward can also be attention, like only being acknowledged or petted when she is calm and not jumping up on you.  I also use toys as a reward. When we play fetch, I’ll only throw her ball or toy after she’s sat nicely waiting for it and not tried to grab it out of my hands. This teaches her that she’ll only get her toy if she sits politely, which translates into impulse control as well. Rewarding desired behaviors is our effort to show Johnnie what we DO want from her, instead of just trying to show her what we don’t want without offering her an alternative option.

Consider this scenario, common to many of us dog owners: guests coming over to your home. Think of all the things you don’t want your dog to do: jump up, bark, run around, etc. – there are so many behaviors you can come up with, right? Now think about what you do want your dog to do: sit or lie nicely as people come in the door. Much easier to focus on the one behavior you want than the dozens you don’t want, right? So teach that behavior! Set your dog up for success by showing them what you want them to do, not by making them guess what you don’t want.

Negative punishment is a part of the four quadrants of learning, and it means that you take something good away (negative) to decrease the likelihood of a behavior (punishment). When Johnnie becomes mouthy during play, we stop the game. She learns that being mouthy = fun game ending. When we ask Johnnie to sit and wait for her dinner, every time her butt comes off the ground as the food bowl lowers the ground, we pick the bowl back up again. Johnnie quickly learns that moving towards the bowl = bowl (food) going away.

It is remarkable how quickly these basic principles can help a dog figure out what we want from them WITHOUT the use of harsh corrections like yelling, using a spray bottle, leash jerks, etc (these fall under the category of ‘positive punishment’ – adding something undesirable to decrease a behavior). Johnnie is a sensitive dog and, like many dogs, would deteriorate under aversive correction methods. There’s the chance she would form bad associations with whatever is present at the time of the correction, which could create worse problems for the future. Operating under the “do this, or else” mentality of aversive corrections has the possibility to make her shut down and stop being her happy, fun self – all in an attempt to avoid the corrections. Plus, these punishments often only address the symptoms of an issue, not the root of the problem. Often times the anxiety, fear or discomfort is still there, despite the lack of exhibited behavior, and it will likely resurface in a worse way down the road.

I would love to elaborate on the negative effects of aversive punishment methods, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Here is a fabulous post by Love and a Six-Foot Leash about why intimidation tactics can be harmful to your relationship with your dog.  I also recommending checking out Jasmine’s House’s take on why you should address fear or reactivity issues with your dog in a positive way.  Lastly, Your Dog’s Friend has some really great resources about positive versus “traditional” training.

In just two weeks with us, Johnnie has, for the most part, picked up on a bunch of house rules. For example: self-control during play time, waiting to go out the door until released, waiting for her food bowl, not jumping on us when we come home, not getting on the furniture, walking calmly past other dogs and strangers, and more.  This was all done through rewarding the behavior we wanted and teaching alternatives to the behaviors we didn’t want. This has made learning fun for Johnnie and she trusts us. She thinks, “What can I do next that will get me a treat!?” That usually translates into a whole lot of sitting and staring at me, which is fine – especially when we’re out and about!  It comes down to the fact that she makes the decision to perform desired behaviors because she’s realized the rewards make it worth it.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed. We're lucky with her because she's already got an affinity for her bed - some dogs will need to learn a "go to bed" cue or will need a kong to keep them occupied while on their bed.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed, NOT when she was staring at us eating. We’re lucky with her because she’s already got an affinity for her bed – some dogs will need to learn a “go to bed” cue or will need a stuffed Kong to keep them occupied while on their bed during a meal. It is very important that no one reinforces a dog’s begging, even once, or else it will be harder and harder to teach them otherwise. Practiced behaviors get reinforced, and reinforced behaviors get repeated – good or bad!

Johnnie is only going to continue to improve, so I’ll keep you updated on her progress! Week two at the Foster Dog Alliance class had me beaming at how much she improved over last week, but also brought up new challenges for us – so stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll have a lot to report over the next few weeks.

To adopt your very own star student Johnnie Cash, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.