Training your pets can be one of the most rewarding and frustrating aspects of having any animal. Understanding the basics of animal training can be beneficial for both you and your pets to ensure the “frustration” aspect is at a minimum. Positive reinforcement training (also referred to by its fancier, scientific name of Operant Conditioning) can be a great way for you to establish a healthy relationship with your pet while also getting some ground rules established. These training techniques work on any species or breed, as long as you are consistent in your methods
The first step in positive reinforcement training is determining the “reward” for your animal. Say your dog loves a certain treat and will do anything to get it. You should reserve that treat only for training – that means, no handouts of that specific treat “just because” you know he likes it.
From now on, he has to work for it. If you pet isn’t food motivated, maybe it’s a scratch on the head or access to their favorite toy. Whatever the reward, it should be used for training purposes only.
The next thing you should do is identify what you will use as your training “bridge.” A bridge can be a whistle, a clicker, or even a simple word, such as “good.” In a perfect world, the second our animal does something right they should receive their reward immediately.
In most cases, though, there will be a few seconds delay between a correct behavior and the reward. A bridge is used to pinpoint exactly when the correct behavior occurred and is used to tell the animal their reward is coming.
To establish a bridge think of Pavlov’s Dog: every time the bell rang the dog was offered food. The bridge is the bell, the reward was food. When you first begin training using your new bridge, you will always pair it with a reward to start. Say you’re using a clicker.
Click – give the reward. Click – give the reward. Do this sequence until your pet begins to respond to the clicker. At some point when you click your pet will become excited or maybe his ears will perk up – he knows he’s getting something good!
After you have established a bridge and reward system, you can move onto training an actual behavior. Each behavior should be given a command (“sit,” “lay down,” “stay,” etc.) and a hand signal to accompany it. Take the behavior “sit” as an example. When training your pet to sit, say “sit” and give the hand signal at the same time to your pet.
The second your pet sits (or begins to sit) use your bridge and then follow with the reward. Many behaviors need to be “shaped” before they are correct. Keep using positive reinforcement until the desired behavior is what you want. Many times, animals will be trying to figure out what they did to get the treat and are eager to keep trying!
When you feel that you or your animal are becoming frustrated it is usually a good time to stop. Always end on a positive note, so ask for a behavior already known (even if it is just the click and reward) and offer a simple reward to end the session. By working with your animal once or twice a day you will be establishing a great connection with your animal, creating good behaviors, as well as stimulating both of your minds.