Lattice was a three year old dog when we adopted him. We felt lucky that he was house trained and someone had taught him basic sit, down, and come commands.
But, unfortunately, his commands were reinforced extremely poorly. It’s clear he got attention whether he did what was asked of him or not. So, he never learned that it was actually important to do what his owners told him to do.
In Lattice’s mind:
Down: Only if I’m feeling energetic enough to put the energy into a down (maybe a quarter of the time).
Come: Hmmm, no distractions and I’ll get a head scratch. Ok!
Lattice is adorable and really calm. He rarely jumps, barks, doesn’t chew, or go into trash cans. I can picture him in his last home with three kids and busy parents and his obedience level was manageable, if not frustrating at times.
But, G. and I want to take Lattice off leash hiking, I have friends and family who don’t love dogs, and I need to trust that Lattice will do what I tell him to do. It’s very important for me to have a well trained dog.
So, I spent hours doing research on the internet. I tried all the friendly techniques. You know–I turned away and didn’t give Lattice attention. I said “eh eh” and he didn’t receive food. I gave him TONS of treats when he did the right thing. Lattice continued to wag his tail or would simply wander away when I wasn’t showing him attention. He was only somewhat treat motivated and did not appear very interested in pleasing us beyond asking us for cuddles. His attitude was clearly, “I’m calm. I’m being good. What’s the problem?” (Which is true, but not the point!)
Finally, I signed Lattice up for basic obedience classes at our local humane society. I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned our teacher took a balanced approach, one that involved rewards AND punishments.
Our teacher explained that punishments do not involve scaring or hurting the dog. They simply shock or make him a little uncomfortable. As Cesar Milan might say, they “knock him out” of the bad behavior. She advised us to use rattles, spray bottles, and more aggressive collars.
Rewards teach our dog what we want. But punishments tell him what is NOT ok. Wandering away when we ask him to sit–not ok. Ignoring our down command–not ok. We learned multiple ways to pull his collar to force him into the positions we wanted and are polishing our “eh eh” to warn him when a punishment is coming.
Since we’ve started the class, I’ve seen exponential improvement in his level of obedience. The first time he ‘sat’ for his food without me having to ‘eh eh’ and pull his collar, I almost cried. I thought he would never get it. He still isn’t consistent. But, if we are consistent, he’ll get there.
All that positive reinforcement stuff is awesome. But I think pure positive reinforcement training works when you have a puppy/blank slate/dog that really wants to please. For a slower, older, dog that has to both learn new behavior and unlearn old behavior it’s imperative to have a method that gives him both sides of the training coin, so he learns clearly what to do and what not to do.