What is Positive/ reward-based/ force-free training?
Training needs to be a mutually rewarding experience for the Puppy Handler and the Rescue Pup. Puppy handling (and ownership) should be a fun, mutually beneficial and interactive experience!
Most of us got involved in pet rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming out of a deep love for animals - for us, dogs are our best friends and companions. We need to show our understanding, compassion and respect for the pups in our care, during our interactions with them. We use positive reinforcement training, which means we reward behaviours we like and want to encourage whilst ignoring the less desirable behaviours. We focus on rewarding those behaviours we want, controlling the environment in order to prevent unwanted behaviours from happening (and make sure that we inadvertently avoid rewarding these unwanted behaviours. We provide consistent clear communication and let the RP know what we want him to do, by rewarding him (whether by treats, praise, desirable rewards such as a toy/game or off-lead walk) when he does it. He repeats the good behaviour to earn more rewards. This mutually fulfilling way of training helps reinforce the canine-human bond and strengthens relationships based on trust, respect and understanding. It's fun, stimulating and bonding AND proven to be the most successful way of training and setting a puppy up for future success and happiness!
All that we really want as the CLAW PHT are HAPPY TAILS, so let us aspire to be benevolent mentors like the “the old dog”, so that we can help our CLAW RP’s have happiness follow them, wherever they go!
Tip: Only ever use the pup's name for something positive "Good Clawbie!". (S)he must associate his/her name with something good. Never reprimand a puppy using his/her name or when you are impatient or annoyed. Then you'll find, teaching RP a recall (to come to you, when called) is a piece of cake! (S)he hears you call "Come Clawbie!" (s)he thinks "yippee got to rush back to PH 'cos something great is going to happen..." If the name is mainly associated with negative things like being told off, or being put back on lead (to be taken home after an off-leash walk in the park), or being put back in the crate or locked outside etc. then RP prefers to ignore you when his/her name is called (because the name is associated with the end of good times, or being told off).
Despite it not being part of CLAW's original Mission Statement to be an animal shelter, we have (as a result of necessity) had to become a temporary place of safety for confiscated, rescued and surrendered pets from the surrounding informal settlements and townships. Our involvement in animal welfare means we must be free from any threatening and intimidating conduct or maltreatment of the CLAWbies in our care. Maltreatment includes acts of omission (neglect, apathy, ignorance and laziness) as much as commission (abuse). We need to be mentors and good examples in the way we treat and train our CLAWbies. I hope that one day CLAW will become an Open Paw shelter!
More on why Dominance Theory is no longer the accepted training method... and why benevolent mentorship is a better approach to Puppy training than "Pack Leadership". See the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour's position statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in training.
See Karen Pryor's extremely helpful book, Don't Shoot the Dog to make Positive Reinforcement Training come alive... in everyday life... and it's not just about dogs!
Being cognisant that spare time is a luxury most shelter workers (and even foster parents) have little of, it is essential that we, as part of the PHT, recognise that there are constant opportunities to train the pups in our care. Learning (and opportunities for learning) and growth are a part of everyday life and we just need to recognise and make the most of these PAWsome oPAWtunities!
Initially our RP's food (or preferably tasty treats) will be the best motivator. Initially a tasty morsel (about the size of ¼ of the size of their nose) is used as a lure to direct the puppy to follow your hand (treat) and complete a behaviour, once behaviour is complete, you will praise and reward (treat). Over time you will be able to fade out the lure and when puppy completes behaviour on cue (command) you will praise and treat. Initially patience and consistency are very important. Just as we only give bite-sized treats, training needs to be broken down into "biteable bits and chewable chunks" in order for 'digestion' (or assimilation) to occur. REMEMBER, nothing succeeds like success! Not only do we want RP to do well, but we want RP to have fun and WANT to do well!
Rewards are not just treats, it can be anything the puppy finds rewarding (provided it's acceptable as a reward - i.e. if puppy is teething, a rawhide chewy is a good reward rather than your sheepskin slipper). Like us, pups have preferences (some prefer a piece of carrot stick to a vienna, some prefer a squeaky toy to a ball) ...one needs to experiment to find, what that pup finds most rewarding.
As soon as the RP is performing the behaviour about 80% of the time, we begin withdrawing the treats and only give a treat intermittently. Research has shown that intermittent reinforcement is actually more motivating and will keep the puppy focused. (Just as gambling is addictive to many people, the random possibility of a reward, has been shown to reinforce learning! The pup now tries extra hard to win the reward (and you become his 'one-armed bandit' slot machine). Research has also shown that if the puppy does something extra well or quickly, and you "jackpot" his reward (with 7-10 treats and even more enthusiastic praise) it also serves to increase the puppy's enthusiasm, desire to learn, curiosity and confidence. The RP is extra motivated to discover what was done right to win that 'Jackpot'. This is particularly useful in capturing new behaviours, or when a pup suddenly 'clicks' what "SIT" actually means Click here for more resources w.r.t. Learning Theory and how a puppy learns...
It's vital to realise we are not trying to make a "good" or "obedient" dog by teaching certain skills, but rather we are moulding our shelter pups into more adoptable and adaptable dogs who will ultimately be doggy ambassadors for our "Adopt don't Shop" campaign!
For example, imagine we teach a CLAWbie to SIT for everything (s)he wants - whether it's a treat, a toy or dinner, or you enter the enclosure/playpen or open a door or gate etc.... Learning to SIT will set the puppy up with a real life skill! (S)he will learn a SIT is good, a SIT earns a reward (treat and praise), and that SIT will become his/her way of saying "Please may I..." This SIT, in real life, will be rewarded (again and again) because of the respectful, calm and polite way (s)he requested it (the reward). It is also important to generalise the cue "SIT" so that RP learns to do it in many different places and situations - indoors, outdoors, in the crate/cage out on walks, when asked by different people and in return for different rewards (whether it's food, a toy, a walk, a cuddle ...anything that puppy finds rewarding). So... teaching a SIT is thus actually teaching a life (rewarding) skill!
As hectic as things are at CLAW or in a foster home it is important for us to take time (and if necessary make time) to provide training (stimulation and socialisation) to help the RP's in our care not only grow up into dogs but to fulfil their potential to become "man's best friend" and a valued member of a family.