Dr. Linda Randall, the owner and veterinarian at Cloverleaf Animal Hospital, has acquired years of experience and knowledge working with animals. She has overwhelmingly observed that, for every pet owner, one thing remains true: either you are training your pet, or your pet is training you.
“Behavior is statistically the number one reason why people give up an otherwise healthy animal,” she says.
Randall and Jessica Taylor, a veterinary technician at Cloverleaf Animal Hospital, work with people and their animal companions through various types of training, covering everything from party tricks to agility course training.
“For people and pets alike, behavior is explained through economics,” says Taylor.
The economics of behavior are very simple. If a behavior results in a rewarding outcome, you are going to do it. If it results in a negative outcome, over time you will stop doing it. The challenge of training involves identifying what is valuable to your pet, and sticking to a routine of positivity and reinforcement.
This dynamic duo of behavioral experts offered three quick tips to make training a pleasant experience for you and your pet.
1. Set them up for success.
Randall: The more they are right, the better they are going to learn. If they think they are always going to be wrong, why should they even try? That’s called “learned helplessness,” and it afflicts people and animals. If you were to go into a math class and get every question wrong, you’d suddenly think you are bad at math. But if the teacher sets you up with something you can do and slowly moves forward once they are certain you are ready—and, of course, reinforces you along the way—then you are open to learning even when the going gets tough.
2. Reinforce what you want, ignore what you don’t want.
Taylor: Reinforce good behavior. If your pet does what you want, give them something they want. If they do something that you do not like, do not give them any attention or reinforcement. For example, let’s say that your dog is jumping on you when you first get home. You should ignore them or turn and walk away. If they come up to you and sit down, you should respond with positive reinforcement. Your pet may not always be looking for a treat—they may just be looking for attention from you. Or, for an example with people, let’s consider the class clown. He likes to be goofy in exchange for attention. It does not matter to him if it is negative attention, so long as he is noticed. If you were to ignore the class clown when he’s being goofy and give him attention when he’s sitting quietly and doing his work, all of a sudden there will be a shift in behavior. Find what is valuable to your pet, and offer that in exchange for good behavior.
3. Manage, manage, manage!
Randall: Rather than get frustrated and yell at your pet, think to yourself, “I can’t train my dog in the next five minutes to not jump on the counter top to steal food. Instead, what can I do to solve this problem?” The answer is find a way to manage it. In this case, you will instruct your family to not leave food on the counter. Then, consider what you want to do in the future to address this issue. Do you want to just keep managing it? That’s fine, if it is doable and you are okay with managing the situation. If you want to teach your dog, you might need some assistance and advice, but that’s another option.