Training Basics

Training Basics

Our pets don’t always behave the way we would like.  It’s up to us as pet owners to train them, to shape their behavior to match expectations, within reason.  In this article I will provide a very rudimentary introduction to pet training which may help get your rowdy dog or cat back on track.

For the purposes of this article, a “behavior” is anything a pet does.  Pets perform thousands of behaviors a day, including barking, fetching, using the litter box, scratching the sofa, browsing the edge of the kitchen counter looking for food left too close to the edge, etc.  Training is the process of affecting the frequency of these behaviors.

Punishment is providing a stimulus that makes a behavior less likely.  Effective use of punishment with pets can be very tricky.  Take, for example, a Labrador, let’s call him Maxwell.  Max is an energetic lab (is there any other kind?) that jumps up on visitors to greet them, much to the embarrassment of his owners.  Yelling “no” at the dog, an attempt at punishment can be confusing, because he’s really doing multiple behaviors.  Is the “no” for jumping up on people, for getting petted by the visitors, for being too close to people, for being in the foyer at all?  It may be hard for him to figure out.  It may take getting yelled at dozens of times before he gets the idea.

Reinforcement is almost always a more effective teaching tool than punishment.  Reinforcement is providing a stimulus (a “good dog” or delicious treat) that makes a behavior more likely.  In the previous example, giving Max a treat for sitting across from the entryway when visitors arrive will make him more likely to do it in the future.

Housetraining is another common training situation.  What is the desired behavior?  The desired behavior is a puppy doing her business outside.  When the puppy does the desired behavior, reward the heck out of her.  As the behavior gets reinforced, it will become more common, and you’ll save money on carpet cleanings.

Timing is extremely important.  The reward or punishment for a behavior needs to be almost instant.  If even a few seconds have passed, the pet will not likely make the connection between the reward or punishment and the behavior.  The classic example is “showing” a dog a mess he made inside.  If it’s been more than 3 seconds or so since he made the stain, he probably has no idea why he’s getting yelled at.  Similarly, a reward should come right when he does his business outside, not when he comes back inside.  If you do the latter, he’s going to be thinking “OK, it’s good to go outside and come back in”, not necessarily “Oooh, my toilet is outside!”.

If the behavior problem is more serious, like biting family members or pets fighting very aggressively, it may be a good idea to call a professional for help.  Ask your veterinarian for recommendations for a trainer than can help remedy a dangerous situation as quickly as possible.

-Dr. Ian Birkbeck

Dr. Birkbeck writes monthly columns for the local publication, “The Viera Voice”.  If you have any pet medical questions you’d like to see answered in a future column, you can email them to

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