So, what do I mean when I say gentle dog training? I mean no shock collars and no forcing the dog to obey through pain. I use gentle methods to train my dogs, and you can too.

The Science of Gentle Dog Training

You don’t have to be aggressive to train your dog. There is a better path for both of you: do gently. So, how can gentleness lead to a well trained dog, and a calmer and more peaceful environment for both of you? By learning three basic principles of gentle dog training, and putting them into practice, you can train your dog to do amazing things.

Classical Conditioning

You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s famous experiment with a dog drooling when he heard a bell. If you feed a dog and don’t ring a bell, the dog drools in response to food like usual. If you ring a bell and do nothing else, the dog ignores the bell. However, if you pair the food and the bell together, the dog will learn to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Now, why does this matter? How does this help us train our dogs gently? By pairing a stimulus, like garbage truck banging along the street, with treats, the dog learns that the banging noise is nothing to be worried about and looks forward to having a snack, instead of barking like a manic and giving you a headache.

Operant Conditioning

However, classical conditioning will only take you so far. This brings us to the second part of gentle dog training, operant conditioning. Operant conditioning means that a behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated, and a behavior that is punished is likely to be extinguished. If every time you call your dog, you play a game of tug, the dog will look forward to coming when called, assuming the dog likes playing tug. My dogs love dehydrated lung. The only time they get a bite is when I call them in from the yard. Francis and Noelle run over each other trying to get to the door.

When gentle dog trainers speak of punishment, we don’t mean shock collars, choke chains, or hitting a dog. Punishment can be as quiet and gentle as not setting down a bowl of food until the dog is sitting. Punishment does not mean violence.

Premack’s Principle

This brings us to the third part of gentle dog training. David Premack developed the idea that a preferred activity can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. Did that make you say, um, what? If not, you’re a lot smarter than me, because that had me scratching my head for a while. It turns out it’s a complicated way of saying something you already know instinctively. Let me break it down. Remember when you were a kid and your mom said, “Eat your broccoli and then you can have ice cream?” Or, “Wash the dishes and then you can go out to play.” That was Premack’s principle in action. It was far more likely that you would eat broccoli and wash dishes, because a rewarding thing was on the other side.

This simple concept works with dogs, too. Before the dog can do what he wants, first he has to do what you want.

Putting The Pieces Together
  1. Your dog wants you to put water in the water bowl and is playing floor hockey.
  2. You want to give your dog water, but you don’t want to get wet socks again.
  3. You ask your dog to sit.
  4. If the dog sits and waits, you set down the water bowl.
  5. If the dog does not sit, you do not set down the water bowl until the dog is sitting.
  6. Dog is rewarded with a bowl of water. You are rewarded with dry socks.
  7. Every time the dog sees you bringing a bowl of water, the dog automatically sits.

That seven step process is what gentle dog training is all about.

Premack’s principle: Siting calmly (broccoli behavior) leads to getting a drink of water (rewarding behavior).

Operant Conditioning: Waiting leads to you setting down the water bowl (rewarding). Not waiting patiently leads to you not putting down the bowl (gentle punishing).

And finally Classical Conditioning: The dog has repeated this process of sitting and being rewarded with a bowl of water often enough that the dog sits without you saying anything. Sitting for water is an automatic (classically conditioned) response to you approaching with a water bowl. The dog gets water, you get dry socks, and life is good for both of you. That is what gentle dog training is all about.

What Gentle Dog Training Is Not

Gentle dog training is not about bribing dogs with treats! I cannot stress that enough, because it’s the biggest misconception about gentle dog training. It’s about reinforcing good behavior frequently enough that good behavior becomes automatic. Gentle dog training is about teaching the dog behaviors that you do want them to do. Violent dog training focuses on what you don’t want the dog to do, and that’s a critical difference.

Let’s go back to giving a dog a drink of water again. A violent trainer might yell at the dog, or hit the dog, when he rushed the bowl. If repeated enough times, you might classically condition the dog to stay away from you when you set down the bowl. However, you might accidentally train the dog to be afraid of the water bowl, or you approaching with a water bowl. He might growl when you set down the water bowl.

Violence successfully taught the dog what not to do. It did not teach the dog what you wanted to see. Gentle trainers spend 90% of their time calmly teaching dogs what they do want to see. What do I want to see out of Noelle and Francis?

I want to see dogs that wait calmly by the door and never bolt out into the street. I want to see dogs that wait in the car, give eye contact, and wait for permission to get out of the car. I like dry socks. I like calm behavior. I like seeing my dogs come running from 250 feet when I call their names.

If you want to see your dog wait when you open the front door, wait when you open the car door, sit before you put down the water bowl, walk calmly with you on a leash, and sprint to you when you call their names, join me in training your dog the DoGently way. Your dog will love you for it.