Award-winning dog trainer and behaviour specialist Jaice Jackson shares some of her top tips on improving your dog’s confidence and behaviour.
The philosophy I live by as a dog trainer and what I always relay back to my clients is the simple notion that dogs want to feel good about you, about their environment and about themselves. When a dog feels good, it’s usually the result of a multitude of positive feelings — safe, engaged, nurtured, connected and confident. If we think about it on a very basic level, when a dog feels good, he will more likely be secure in his decision-making, obedient, receptive, driven, calm and self-controlled in high-stimuli environments, and trust his owner’s commands.
There are many behaviours and activities owners can employ to help their dog feel good. Here are my top three.
1. Socialisation & neutralisation
When you get a new puppy, the first thing most people think about is socialisation. This can get confusing because you think your dog needs to meet lots of other dogs, be around lots of people and see lots of things because if she doesn’t, she’s going to grow up with issues. On top of this, owners and their dogs are told they need to do this as soon as possible so as to not miss the “critical development period.” I often hear socialisation and neutralisation thrown around as if they are one and the same but, while they are closely interconnected, they actually mean very different things.
How I like to explain it is socialisation is the name of the skill and activity you’re teaching your dog, and neutralisation is the behaviour outcome you want from your dog — we want our dog to be kept neutral around attention-grabbing stimuli. This means that while we want our dogs to feel good (ie safe and confident) when socialising, interacting and engaging with different things, we also want them to be controlled, calm, receptive to us and neutral to the environment/s around them.
Taking your puppy or dog all over the place and introducing him to all sorts of stimuli will certainly socialise him, but maintaining a neutralised behaviour is the tricky part. A large part of this comes down to the engagement your dog has with you. You ultimately want to be the most exciting, fun, safe, rewarding stimuli your dog has on offer, every time. Once the outside world seems less exciting or rewarding, your dog is more likely to focus on you. One simple thing you can employ is limiting or avoiding other people on the street petting, playing, exciting or feeding your puppy. This might sound harsh, but this is about building the relationship with you and your pup, so you want to be the one controlling the environment your dog is in and keep the engagement and connection between the two of you. You are essentially encouraging and teaching your puppy or dog that other people, dogs, toys, noises etc aren’t as good as the reward they could receive from abiding your command.
Socialisation and reaching neutralisation are such crucial parts of raising a dog and it’s equally important to do them correctly. It’s not something to overthink, but rather something to enjoy together. Watching your dog learn and find self-control and confidence in herself is such a beautiful thing to experience.
2. Clear reward system
As a trainer, I believe in using training programs designed to develop skills and behaviours using natural instincts, positive reinforcement and reward-based training methods.
Reward-based training may be in the form of a food treat, favourite chew toy or verbal praise such as “good dog” said in a pleasant and upbeat tone, to be given when the dog performs the desired behaviour or command. Being clear with your reward doesn’t mean you can’t change it up. It’s about making sure your dog understands that he’s being rewarded for a certain reason.
Three ways to establish a clear reward system for your dogs are:
Mark immediately: Your dog will learn quicker if you mark and then reward him at the precise moment he performs the desired action. You want him to associate the physical sensation of the behaviour with the reward, which anchors the desired response.
If you reward your dog too early or too late, he’ll have a hard time connecting the reward with the necessary sensation.
Tit for tat: Match the level of reward to the performance. If your dog is just going through her paces, mark and reward as usual. When your dog performs the behaviour for the first time or really nails a command (jumps higher, moves faster, balances longer), she should receive a huge reward — I call this a “jackpot”. Your dog will learn to strive for her best performance since that’s what brings the best rewards. An important thing to remember is to keep the sessions short and sweet, and end them on a positive note with a reward. Adding playtime afterwards will also help your dog associate the session with feeling good about itself and about you!
Say it, don’t nay it: Reward-based training involves ignoring any unwanted behaviour, so the dog is not rewarded for this. If dogs are not rewarded for certain behaviours, then they tend to stop doing them. At this time, it’s important to reset the session, by breaking it off, moving around and keeping it exciting. Reposition any tools you’re using and put them back to their original position before starting again.
An interesting behaviour I’ve noticed in owners is difficulty erasing “no” from their vocabulary when a dog is doing an unwanted behaviour or not picking up a command as directed. It’s not surprising because most of us have been raised with parents telling us “no” for unwanted behaviour (sort of makes your rethink our own reward systems!).
Turn distractions into rewards: Dog trainers (including myself) often advocate using food as a reward since it’s the easiest way to teach a command. But this can lose its novelty and excitement factor over time. Food can also be a useless reward if your dog is distracted by the desire to do something else, such as run towards another dog nearby or roll in the grass. Once your dog understands a command, you can ensure a reliable response by turning the distractions themselves into a behavioural reward. Have him retrieve his leash before he goes for a walk. Keep a list of the activities your dog loves and look for ways to turn those distractions into rewards. This will teach your dog to listen, even if his mind is on something else, and he’ll begin to associate real-life value with obeying your commands.
When you think of the times that your dog is at her happiest, it’s probably when she’s playing. When you incorporate play into the relationship you’re building with your dog, the bond and connection only strengthens. By playing with your dog, you’re building an association with your dog feeling good and being with you. Not only does this help the dog learn to trust you but it also helps the dog identify playtime as a reward so that when it comes to training obedience, the dog will want to work for the potential reward of playtime.
It’s important that when you get a dog, you understand that you’re taking him away from an entire litter of mates to play with and he will now need a replacement stimuli — that’s you.
Dogs are incredibly intelligent creatures with a lot of energy. Play gives your dog somewhere to put that energy; it provides mental and physical stimulation and it allows the dog to learn its strengths (jumping, running, balancing, catching, pulling etc). Playtime is also an optimal time to teach a dog to follow rules, identify and obey boundaries and practise self-control — and using clear reward-based techniques will build confidence in your dog. It feels good for your dog to please you as an owner, it feels good to be rewarded after pleasing you and it feels good to be stimulated, engaged and connected with you.
Ultimately, you want play to be fun and in a safe environment where your dog feels like a true winner in all sense of the word. Not all dogs are the same so what they identify as “fun” will vary. Connecting with your dog and experimenting and understanding what makes your dog most happy is crucial — is it a ball, a tug, a rope, a soft toy, running with you or fetching for you? Once this is identified, it will be a core part of your relationship, used not only for playtime, but also as your tool for engagement to keep your dog’s focus on your and for rewarding good behavior.
Originally in PETS Magazine, Issue 69