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A new client recently asked me why he should pursue positive, reward-based training over a more punishment-based method. To be honest, I really appreciate questions like that.
It is easy for positive reinforcement trainers to assume clients are already committed proponents of dog-friendly training. But they often call us simply because they saw our advertisement or because a friend referred them to us.
Humans need to feel connected to others, and we sometimes bond as deeply with our dogs as we do with those of our own species. However, the flavors of human-canine bonding can vary wildly. On one end of the spectrum are those who fall in love with dogs based on their looks, personality or intelligence. On the other end are those who become attached to dogs in order to fill the holes left by emotional wounds. There probably are as many variations of this bond as there are dog owners, and any variation can be unhealthy if proper consideration is not given to providing for the dogs' needs. So, what do dogs need from us?
For tens of thousands of years, humans have bred dogs to accentuate characteristics that are useful for us and eliminate traits we dislike. That is why dogs integrate so easily into our families and are called “man's best friend.” They can help us navigate streets if we cannot see, pick up the phone for us if we cannot reach it, hunt with us, herd our livestock, guard our homes, play sports with us and be loyal friends when we have had a lousy day.
Science regularly sheds light on what we have suspected all along: dogs are brilliant at deciphering our facial expressions, body language and verbal communication. They can follow the point of our finger, which even chimpanzees struggle to do. Sometimes it seems they understand us in an almost human way.
But what does this have to do with training dogs and dealing with behavior issues?
Years ago, a mentor told me the best way to learn is to teach. Teaching (both the preparation and the interaction) has a way of triggering creativity and pushing us towards insight. I occasionally experience the reality of this when I conduct in-home dog training sessions in Denver, Colorado.
When someone has a very problematic dog, I (the dog trainer) am usually the last person to know. But when I finally do hear about it, I encounter a lot of human frustration: someone at their wits' end because their dog has destroyed an expensive sofa, shredded a mattress, or uninstalled some linoleum; or someone who is feeling angry and betrayed because their dog bit them or a family member.
Perhaps the most fulfilling part of my work as a dog trainer in Denver, Colorado, is seeing the bond between dogs and their owners deepen. Bonding is extremely important; the deeper the bond, the less likely a dog is to be relinquished to a shelter. Not only that, but the quality of life for both the owner and the dog increase when the bond deepens.