Training is one of the first challenges of pet ownership. The most effective training tool is positive reinforcement. This is the idea that by repeatedly rewarding your pet for certain behaviors, you will reinforce their likelihood to repeat these behaviors.
For example, a pet owner may wish for their new puppy to use the bathroom on their patio. I would advise the owner to frequently take the puppy out to the patio to increase the chances it goes to the bathroom there. When it does, the owner should immediately lavish the puppy with praise and give it a treat. It is very important to immediately reward a pet for a good behavior as soon as it happens. If you wait too long the pet will not associate the reward with the behavior. This sequence should be repeated until the puppy has learned where to use the bathroom (this generally only takes a few times).
Another way that positive reinforcement can be used in training is during desensitization. A lot of pets have an aversion to a certain activity (e.g., riding in the car, having an owner leave them home alone). To desensitize your pet, I would very gradually introduce your pet to the activity while giving positive reinforcement.
For example, a lot of dogs do not like riding in the car. I will generally tell the owner to start by just bringing the dog out of the front door to look at the car. As soon as your dog has settled and is not reacting negatively to viewing the car, give them a treat and praise. Do this once or twice over a day or two. After this, bring your dog out and have them sit five feet away from your car. Give them praise and a treat as soon as they settle and are OK with the situation. Next, have your dog sit in your car when it is still and not idling. Then take them on a short ride around the block, etc. The idea is to gently, slowly introduce the noxious stimulus to the pet while also praising them for not reacting negatively.
Certain situations are difficult to recreate such as getting a pet used to flying on a plane. In this example I would use positive reinforcement and desensitization to get your pet used to sitting in a crate for an extended period of time. You could also play ambient noise that may mimic noise on a plane while your pet is crated, etc. By doing this, you are limiting the amount of new stimuli that your pet will have to work through once they actually fly on the plane. Depending on your pet’s level of anxiety, a mild sedative or anxiolytic may be needed to keep them calm during the flight. I know I need this myself when I fly!
With the influx of new pets to train as well as the uptick in travel, pet owners should rely heavily on positive reinforcement. The older theory of negative reinforcement (scolding a pet for doing something wrong) has been shown over and over to be ineffective. By using effective training strategies, both you and your pet can live happier, less anxious lives together.
Dr. Brandon Wilson is a Pacifica resident. He is a 2009 graduate of University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. He has been a full-time veterinarian at Linda Mar Veterinary Hospital for the last nine years.