How Puppy Training Has Changed—And Why

01/27/2016

Formal dog training as we know it originated during World War II. Before that, dogs had been working household members and their behavior was largely shaped through organic learning from older dogs. Only when soldiers needed to train large numbers of dogs to assist in warfare did compulsion training arise and, when the war ended, was developed into a recognized field by discharged military personnel. Back then, society as a whole accepted punishment as a valid teaching method. Typical training approaches involved physical corrections, leash jerks, and loudly yelling at the dog. This was difficult for puppies to endure, so the prevailing wisdom was to hold off on proper training until the puppy was seven months old (house-training was the exception).

In some places, these outdated methods are still used. But from the 60s and 70s and on—through the work of pioneers like Bob Bailey, Karen Pryor, and Dr. Ian Dunbar—positive reinforcement training has gained ground. Informed by behavioral science, this approach promotes force-free motivational techniques to teach dogs what we do and don’t want. The motivators can be anything the dog wants: Treats, praise, toys, a leash walk, or a ball thrown. Behaviors we don’t like result in no reward, the removal of a reward, or no attention, but never in punishment or coercion. Reward-based training principles soon won through in puppy training too, notably with Dr. Ian Dunbar’s puppy kindergarten classes.

We now know puppies learn every day of their lives, whether we teach them deliberately or by accident. We also know that positive methods encourage fast learning. Studies in both people and animals show that knowledge acquisition centers in the brain slow down or shut off completely when pain or fear is present. Positive training also strengthens the bond between you and your puppy. To a puppy trained with rewards, training is a game and you’re the quizmaster. The last frontier is expectations. Like human children who need years to learn to play the violin, puppies don’t retain all they need to know in life from a six-week puppy class. The lesson? Start early—and keep going!

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