Toby was my first dog, and I knew nothing. I didn’t take him to training class because I didn’t know there were classes. (Maybe there weren’t back then.) He always came when I called if I was holding a tennis ball, so I lived my life holding a tennis ball.
I taught him drop by bonking him on the nose and saying, “Drop it!” It only took two or three bonks before he learned, and for his whole life he dropped everything immediately on command.
By the time I got my second dog, Boscoe, I had learned that hitting a dog, even gently on the nose, was wrong. Now, there were classes. My husband took Boscoe to a class where they taught the choke chain method of training. Choke chain is a misnomer; the chain does not choke a dog, not at all, but merely tightens on its skin for a fraction of a second before it is released. Boscoe learned quickly and well.
By the time Riley, Dog No. 3, came around, choke chains were taboo. I am taking my reputation into my hands just confessing that we once used one.
No, for Riley it was clicker training. Always positive reinforcement, never negative. When the dog does something right, you click the clicker and give him a treat. When he does something he shouldn’t — gets into the garbage, chews your Mad Bomber hat — you don’t yell; you redirect his attention with toys, clicks and treats.
Now, with our new puppy, Angus, we skip the clicker and go right for the treats. Like clicker training, treat training is all about positive reinforcement.
Instead of a click, we say, “Yesssss!” We give treats for sit and treats for down and treats for wait and treats for this and treats for that, and we play the “Drop it!” game in which we never bonk the dog on the nose, no-no-no, but instead we distract the pup from chewing on our socks and shoes and Mad Bomber hats by scattering treats across the ground and merrily singing, “Drop it!” And ostensibly he will abandon the sock and scramble after the treats and over time he will abandon the sock on command, no treats necessary.
You doubt? Don’t. Angus dropped an entire package of bagels this way.
Still, what I sometimes wonder is this: If I give Angus a treat for recognizing his name, and a treat for sitting, and a treat for not jumping, and a treat for peeing outside instead of in the living room, and a treat for dropping something, does he understand? Does he know that each treat is a reward for something he did right? Or does he just think I’m a human Pez dispenser?
And yet, it works. I need look no farther than Rosie, our 6-year-old Lab mix, who was such a difficult, intense, tantrum-throwing puppy that we nicknamed her “the wolverine.” She is now calm, obedient and gentle. A year of positive training turned the wolverine into an angel. (Albeit a very barky angel.)
Meanwhile, Angus has graduated from puppy kindergarten with flying colors (not that it is possible to flunk) and I have to say, I heartily recommend it — if just for the socialization. (But the other stuff was good, too.)
Now he has a few months of being a kid again, and then it will be back to school: Obedience 1. Leash training. And, if he needs it, recall training. (So far he is great at recall, but he hasn’t hit his rebellious stage yet.)
He’ll have a Puppy Ph.D. when he’s done. And we will be exhausted and broke. But hopefully we will find that instead of a frustrating chewing machine of a puppy, we suddenly have a good, obedient dog. Just like his big sister, the former wolverine.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. She is not a dog expert, just a dog lover, chronicling the first months of her puppy’s development every few weeks on this page.
Coming March 10: Oh, the biting! Read previous installments of the Puppy Chronicles at www.startribune.com/puppy.