If you interview a group of reward-based dog trainers you will likely see two common threads. Professionals who use their brain, not brawn to train come from a variety of backgrounds and enjoy different breeds but the two things that dominate this group is a passion for dogs and roots in traditional, correction-based training methods. These “crossover” trainers may have used choke chains, prong or shock collars when they started out but once exposed to the benefits of positive reinforcement, embraced the concept and immersed themselves in a new culture.
When people first adopt reward-based training there is often a strong desire to stay away from any punishments. It is absolutely possible to train without harsh corrections and this will lead to an uncompromised relationship between handler and dog based on mutual trust and respect. However, people often stumble when they crossover because they feel guilty about how they trained in the past and overcompensate by allowing the dog to do what they please without providing guidance if the dog gets into mischief.
With positive training methods dogs are able to think things through and experiment to see what works, but that does not mean they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. It is our responsibility to set the dog up for success and control their environment so they don’t practice behaviours we dislike.
If an unwanted behaviour becomes more frequent, it means two things. First, your dog is getting the opportunity to practice it. Second, your dog is somehow being rewarded for his actions. Take for example the dog that drags its owner wherever he wants to go. Dogs quickly learn whose space they can control and will take advantage of this in order to meet and greet other dogs and people or to explore new places. They get rewarded by moving forward and getting attention (good or bad) from the new friends they meet in their travels. Most dogs are not physically stronger than their handlers but many people will accommodate their dogs and don’t prevent them from moving where they please for fear of appearing “mean.”
You do not need to be mean or a bully to prevent your dog from practicing unwanted behaviours. Usually a calm body block where you place yourself between your dog and whatever it is you want them to stop interacting with will do the trick. If your dog tries to go around you or walk past you, simply move your body as if you were guarding a soccer net from a ball and walk into your dog’s space to back them up. You can also teach your dog to follow a hand target to get them out of trouble without even touching them. Always focus on rewarding the positive when you are training your dog but don’t forget to manage their environment and prevent them from practicing unwanted behaviours so you can have the perfect pooch.