My goal with this blog is for you to enjoy your time here. Most of the posts talk about my experiences raising my two yellow Labrador Retrievers, some are just for fun, and others share the best dog related information and products I have found.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Why positive reinforcement works

Trust me when I say I've made my fair share of mistakes. The biggest one I made as the puppies hit adolescence was thinking for a second that negative reinforcement would get me anywhere. Now in hindsight it seems almost absurd to think that getting a negative from me could ever compete with the reward they were getting from what they chose to do.

Dogs are driven by their senses and from 5 months to at least 11 months their curiosity seems to be on hyper-drive. If I had just realized one simple thing sooner I could have avoided a lot of needless frustration. I had to offer them something that was of an equal or greater reward if I wanted them to do what I wanted. If that didn't work then the world needed to come to a complete stop until they refocused back on me. That may mean coming to a complete stop and ignoring a excited barking fit set off by a squirrel or bird, stepping on a leash to prevent jumping and giving them no eye or face contact until they stopped. The key then is to immediately reward when they refocus. Sometimes the "life reward" of just continuing the walk is enough. Luckily there are very few labs that are not food driven so a favorite treat was the perfect reward when I finally got my act together.

There was a period there that I felt that all the birds and squirrels had gotten together and conspired against me just to test my patience. Shelby could just go into fits. Of course it didn't help that I thought at first that a yank on the collar was going to teach him to ignore it. It was like adding fuel to the fire and each time it was worse. The more I yanked the more intense his excitement was. Looking back now I can't believe I didn't get it sooner. I had to let go of trying to control him and switch to only rewarding the behavior I wanted. I didn't realize that although yanking on his collar was a negative it was a reaction and he learned to cause chaos almost over night. It took just over a month of this stupidity on my part before I knew there had to be a better way. I absolutely knew that I didn't have the answers. Thank God for Trish (see previous post)!! Everything we did in her class had a bigger everyday life application. Every skill learned in her class had a more valuable purpose out of class.

Why does positive reinforcement work . . . ? because negative doesn't!!!

These last two weeks I have received the sweetest gift of a reward for all my reformed efforts. I can now walk with both dogs at my side (or at least within a 3 foot radius) out to the middle of the park to the group of dogs we meet with every night. And the kicker is that I can do this all off leash on voice command. With a steady reminder that they must stay with me until they are "released" we make it 100'-150'. This sure beats being dragged by two dogs on leash with my hand turning blue under the strain. No, all our walks are not perfect and walks around the neighborhood still have a lot of work to be done, but it has still been a huge reward for me.

Then there's my sweet girl Nutmeg who has helped me keep the faith. She and I can walk the neighborhood where ever I want to go completely off leash and purely on voice command. She can run errands with me to the neighbors and will hold a perfect down stay at the steps to the front porch while she waits for me. Trust me she could throw a fit as good as her brother, sometimes even better. Whether it's just that she's a "girl" and just gets it quicker or just has a different temperament than her brother, she has always been easier all around. The ironic things is that over the last couple months Shelby and I have established a tighter bond in that he anchors well to me when we're at the park even with other dogs around. He has taught me a lot, not only about training dogs but about myself and life in general. That is always a good thing!!

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