Why Should We Train Our Pets?
We all know that basic training for dogs is a necessity, but training is great for all types of pets including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rodents, birds and horses. Not only can it be lots of fun, but it is also mentally stimulating, a great form of exercise and it can also strengthen the bond between you and your pet. New tricks are a great way of showing off how clever your pet is to other people and also a brilliant way for children to be involved with pet care.
The list of tricks that can be taught is probably endless, but a few of our favourites for household pets are
- Lie Down
- Come here
- Roll over
- High Five
- Take a bow
With patience and rewards, your pet can learn to do all sorts of ‘tricks’ for you and there are certainly a wealth of ideas available on the internet if you can’t think what to teach next.
Reward Based Training – Positive Reinforcement
I will only promote kind, fair, and positive reinforcement training methods and would urge you to steer clear of any training advice or indeed animal trainers or ‘behaviourists’ that use techniques that are based on you having to punish or dominate your pet in any way. The perfect relationship between a pet and its family is based on co-operation and kindness rather than the human dominance over the animal, which is central to out-dated traditional training methods and particularly in dogs, the ‘dominance theory’, which was founded from observation of captive wolves and later proved to be completely inapplicable to training modern-day pet dogs (it also bore hardly any reflection on the way wild wolves behave in packs!) For more information about dominance in dog training visit the APDT website.
The best trained animals are usually the ones that have the greatest bond with their owners and handlers, this is achieved through love, respect, reward and hard work. Not through dominance, forcing or punishment.
Modern behavioural science shows us that the best way to train any animal is by reinforcing good behaviour with rewards and that rewarding good behaviour will increase the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated. Rewards such as food, toys, play or praise are all seen as positive reinforcement by our pets and can be given any time your pet is offering a behaviour that you would like to see again, i.e. sitting when asked, lying down quietly in his or her bed or going to the toilet in the correct place. We often think of dog training when talking about Positive reinforcement or reward-based training, but these techniques can be applied to any animal and has proved successful for pet animals such as cats, rabbits, rodents, birds and horses, as well as livestock and captive wild animals in zoos, safari parks and marine parks.
Training that is based on positive reinforcement will increase the trust between you and your pet and create a stronger bond, because if your pet feels good about you, he or she will be a happier, more confident and hopefully better behaved.
Forceful handling such as physical punishment and yelling at pets does not work. In addition, as far as dogs are concerned, any lead yanking, use of choke chains or prong collars, or making a dog submit by rolling it on its back (the Alpha Roll), have all been shown to not only be psychologically and physically damaging to the dog, but they also have potentially dangerous consequences for owners.
How And When To Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is the fastest, easiest and best way to train your pet, and as mentioned above, it will increase the likelihood that a behaviour will be repeated. When you use positive reinforcement to train an animal, you are creating a positive relationship between the behaviour and its consequences. For example, when you teach a dog or a cat to ‘sit’ you give him a reward when he does it correctly – the treat is the positive reinforcement and because the dog or cat got the treat he will almost definitely repeat the behaviour in order to get another one.
Timing Of The Reward
The timing of the reward is very important. It needs to be as quick as possible because you need to make sure that you are rewarding only the behaviour that you want and not some other unintended behaviour; for example if you are trying to teach ‘sit’ and your pet is in the sitting position but is making a noise (barking or meowing), you need to make sure you reward when he is quiet, otherwise he may interpret “sit” to mean sit down and make some noise!
You can use a Praise Word such as “good” or “bingo” when your pet gets it right or you can use a noise indicator such as a clicker.
What Can I Use As Positive Reinforcement?
Rewards will differ from pet to pet; for some it may be a toy, a game or even some fuss, but for most it will be food. The key to successful training is to find a reward that really motivates your pet and makes him or her want to get some more.
This will vary from pet to pet; for dogs and cats try human foods such as frankfurters, cheese, chicken, fish or you may even find some ready-made pet treats that they go mad for. With rodents and rabbits some yogurt drops or favourite fruits are often great motivators. You need to use something that your pet will find really irresistible.
If you are using food treats
- Try to have your training sessions before meal-time so that your pet is hungry, and will therefore be more responsive.
- Make sure food rewards are given in very small pieces, if your pet gets full up on them there is no motivation to try and get more!
- When training adult pets using food, remember to cut back their normal diet accordingly to compensate for the extra calories.
Other types of reward
These rewards will very much depend on the type of pet and his or her personality. If you are using a toy for a reward, make sure that toy only comes out during a training session and at no other time and remember to make a huge deal about it; otherwise it won’t be seen as ‘special’.
Types Of Training Methods
There are many different training methods and I have listed some of the most common below, but it is important to remember that all training should be a ‘hands off’. Physically pushing or pulling your pet into a certain position shouldn’t be necessary at all and can hurt them and make them resistant in the future; for example, luring a pet into a sitting position with a treat held above their nose will make their bottom hit the floor much faster than if you are physically trying to push their bottom down with your hands.
Capturing – For this method, you wait until your pet performs the behaviour naturally without any prompting or interference from you and then reward it the instant it happens. For example you could wait until your pet sits or lies down naturally and reward with your praise word (or a click) followed by a food, toy or game reward.
Luring – For this method you guide your pet into performing a behaviour by using a food lure (sometimes a toy or your hand will work). For example, if you were teaching your pet to ‘sit’ you could hold a treat above your pet’s nose, making him or her look up and hopefully drop onto his or her bottom into a sit position, at which point you say your praise word (or give a click) followed by a food, toy or game reward.
Shaping – This method is useful for more complicated behaviours because you can break a behaviour down into tiny, steps. Instead of waiting for the completed action, you reward each step toward the final behaviour. For example, if you were teaching your pet to ‘roll over’, you could start by rewarding them when the lie down, then again when they lie on their side, and again when they begin to raise their legs, and again when they are on their back etc. shaping and luring often go hand in hand.
How To Teach A New Trick (example of Sit)
- When first teaching a new trick pick somewhere quiet with no distractions
- Get your pet focused on you – usually this is as simple as getting your pet’s favourite treats out (or toy if that is what you are using)
- Use a treat to lure your pet into the position you would like it to be in. For a ‘sit’ you hold the treat just above your pet’s nose, and slowly move it back, this will encourage your pet to look up and place his or her bottom on the ground (if he or she jumps up you are holding it too high, if he or she takes a step backwards, you may be moving the treat too quickly).
- Once your pet’s bottom is on the floor say your praise word (or use your clicker) and give your pet their reward.
- Repeat the process a few more times. Once your pet gets the hang of what you are asking them to do they will be much quicker at offering the behaviour. Remember to reward your pet each time he or she gets it right.
- When your pet is sitting reliably (about 90% of the time) you can start introducing your ‘cue word’ which in this case will be ‘sit’ as soon as his or her bottom is on the floor. Your pet will soon start associating the word with the behaviour and the reward.
- Repeat this process a few more times, then try just giving the cue word (‘sit’) without using the lure; if your pet sits they have successfully associated the word with the behaviour, if not keep practising.
- When your pet can reliably perform the behaviour on hearing the cue word, you can try asking for the behaviour in different locations and varying distractions (for dogs this will be out and about on walks).
- To ensure your pet knows it 100% you can ask your pet to do it while you are doing something completely different. For example, can your pet do it if you ask while your back is turned, or if you are sitting in a chair rather than standing? You would be amazed at the number of dogs that don’t seem to understand a cue word if their owner is not standing right in front of them!
Golden Rules Of Training
- Use rewards your pet really likes.
- The reward must be given during the appropriate behaviour or within a few seconds of the behaviour you are rewarding.
- Keep sessions short so your pet does not lose interest.
- Make it fun and positive and end on a high, with something easy.
- Focus on training one trick at a time. Once your pet is confident at several, you can start stringing them together.
- Be patient and keep repeating and rewarding the behaviour you want your pet to do, some animals can take a bit longer to understand what you are asking of them than others. It will also depend on how complex the trick is that you are trying to teach.
- Once you are confident that your pet understands your cue word, ensure that you do not ask more than once and that you wait for them to perform the behaviour. eg. don’t keep repeating ‘sit’ until your pet does it.
- Ignore mistakes; it will take time for your pet to master the behaviour. Just give a reward the next time they get it right.
- Make sure that you have your pet’s full attention when training or asking for a behaviour
- Everyone who has contact with your pet should praise the right behaviour, use the same cue words and ignore mistakes. This avoids confusing your pet.
- Smile and think happy thoughts when you train. Your pet will be far more eager to work for you when you are happy.
- Never try to push or physically manipulate your pet into position. Training should be hands off!
- Never use punishment! Shouting, rattle cans, choke chains and smacking will only cause anxiety, pain and fear. Pets that are punished learn very quickly that people can’t be trusted which can lead to a range of behavioural problems later in life.
- Have fun with your pet
Training Classes And Courses For Dogs
There are many many people offering dog training classes and courses these days, but please be careful about who you choose to teach you and your dog. Do your research before booking; check reviews from other people and go along to a few classes without your dog, so that you can make sure you are happy with the style of teaching and how the dogs are handled in class, before you hand over any money.
We recommend that you try and find a local dog class with a trainer who is a registered member of The Association of Pet dog Trainers (APDT) in the UK. This is a voluntary organisation established to improve the welfare of dogs and the competence of dog owners through the promotion of training skills and techniques based on up to date, researched, methods that apply the principles of kindness fairness and effectiveness and are in keeping with modern learning theory. A list of all their trainers can be found on the APDT website. Of course we are not saying that those are the only good dog trainers out there, but you do need to look for trainers using kind, fair and effective methods. Another good idea is to ask your veterinary nurses where they take their own dogs and puppies for training classes!
Small furries & Rabbits
Recommended Training Classes For Dogs
I generally only recommend training classes that my colleagues or myself have attended with our own dogs. I strongly advise that you research any class you are interested in and go along without your dog initially before handing over your money.