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One word can make the difference

| Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, 11:12 a.m.
Andrea Lamping

The No. 1 most important tool used in dog training is communication. Without establishing a clear definition of what you deem to be desired behavior, your dog is left scratching his head.

After all, dogs are not native English speakers. The canine language has been heavily debated for years. What do they feel? How do they think? Should we dominate and force them to be obedient? Should we treat them like wolves? Should we be their pack leaders?

Dogs learn our language the fastest through reinforcement. Our focus should be on rewarding behavior that we like so they develop a repertoire of skills to be used in their daily routines.

There can be a lot lost in translation, so the first step is teaching them a marker word.

A marker word signals that the dog has done something good and reinforcement is coming. I like to use the word “Yes!” For example, I am walking an excitable lab puppy through a distracting environment. He begins looking around eagerly and for a moment, he turns to look at me for direction. In that instant, I would say “Yes!” and offer a food reward instantly to reinforce this wonderful behavior. After offering this kind of feedback for a few minutes, the dog will only have eyes for his trainer, no matter what is going on around him.

I suggest teaching the marker word at home first with limited distractions and then working up to a busier area. You can make your dog work for his kibble, marking good behavior and obedience or playing games that encourage structure and learning.

You can use a million other types of rewards, as well. Use toys, games, sniffing, jumping, greeting, cuddling — anything that your dog finds enjoyable. Once your dog understands what “Yes!” means, he soon will know exactly how to please his master.

If your dog does something that you do not like, you may also use a no-reward marker. So you can say something like “oops” or “nope,” then redirect your dog back to something that will put him on the path to reinforcement.

Using a marker word almost seems too simple to make much of an impact, but this extra bit of structure and clarity can make all the difference to a pup learning our language.

Andrea J. Lamping trains dogs in the greater airport area, including Sewickley, Moon, and Robinson. She can be reached at 724-984-7829 or visit her website at www.moon-walkers.com.

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