Tips from a Guy Whose Life Depends on It

As Rosie, my beautiful yellow Labrador behaves herself surrounded by delectable food, or gently “snouts” a child, those who complement her behavior don’t realize that my life depends on it. Rosie is a guide dog. Her behavior has less to do with her breeding and how much money she’s worth and everything to do with consistency, positive reinforcement and love.

People are always amazed as Rosie and I walk through a crowded restaurant, or through a grocery store. “Does she want a treat?” “No thanks.” “How does she behave so well?” Rosie has been in hundreds of places where food is served and sold and at two and a half years old, she has come to expect the same thing. Rosie knows she’s not going to get any handouts. This is consistency. I will be honest and say that she also knows that the occasional scrap might fall to the floor and that if she’s quick, she might get those scraps. This isn’t generally allowed, but it isn’t always preventable either. Rosie, and your dog will learn when they receive a predictable response. If I occasionally let a person give Rosie a piece of fruit, or the meatball that she was offered last night at one of our favorite restaurants, she would come to expect this. Her behavior would change. Instead of paying attention to me, Rosie would know that a certain individual, or a certain place means food. She would do everything in her power to get that food. If a stray dog has always been chased by kids on bicycles, he will probably be afraid, and either bark or cower from bicycles for a long time. He has come to expect that bicycles might hurt him. It takes a while to change an expectation. The first thing you should remember is, be consistent with your dog. If you don’t want her on the couch, say “no” and mean it. If you don’t want her to beg at the table, don’t hand her scraps. If you don’t want her to jump on people, don’t let her do it, not once, not ever. Consistency means that the same thing happens every day, all the time, no matter how cute your dog is, no matter how mad you are. Dogs like it when they know what to expect. If they know what to expect, you will know what to expect.

There is a time for treats. When I’m trying to teach Rosie a new job, finding a particular door or a bus bench, I might give Rosie a treat. Rosie comes to know that if she does the job right, she’s going to get something she likes. Don’t you like to do things when you think you might get a treat? Ask yourself, would you like to do something if there was a chance you’d get beaten when it wasn’t right? No, you’d rather do nothing. Dogs are the same. Any physical violence, or uncontrolled yelling will often have a negative effect on your dog. He just might do the opposite thing because he’s afraid. Now, many people have taught many animals, and some people, to behave based on negative reinforcement, but I guarantee that if you use a positive response, your dog will learn more quickly and you can expect good results. This is exactly how Rosie was taught to cross a street safely. I stake my life on this tool. If you want more information about this do a Google search for “clicker training.”

I’ve seen enough Animal Planet to know that many of us don’t treat our pets like we love them. And it is true that animals can sense how we, and other animals, feel toward them. Dogs are very sensitive and they can almost know what you’re doing before you do it. But love doesn’t mean we are human treat machines. Love doesn’t mean that we can let dogs behave badly because their feelings might hurt. Love doesn’t even mean that we never use a firm voice with our dog. You must learn to communicate love to your dog by doing what’s good for the dog, and what’s good for you. You should have a “no” voice and a happy voice. A firm quick “no” will signal to the dog that you mean business. Less is more when it comes to commanding your dog. “Spot, I told you not to get on the couch because I won’t give you a cookie.” Spot heard “couch” and “cookie.” Instead, simply say, “Spot, no.” If spot stays off the couch, he can have a treat. Love is giving your pet a consistent positive environment where what he does is good for you and good for him.

There are hundreds of books and classes you can find to learn to train your dog. The techniques vary, but at the end of the day your dog will be much happier if she can count on your positive reinforcement, your consistency, and your love. Rosie knows I love her because I give her a warm place to live and good food to eat. She knows that if she behaves, she’s going to get extra loving from me either edible, or physical and verbal praise, and she knows what to expect. She does her work well and I make it across streets safely. I think that’s a pretty good tradeoff.