One hallmark of positive-reinforcement trainers is that they focus on what they want their pets to do, rather than what they don’t want their pets to do. This approach is incredibly effective. By simply ignoring behaviors you don’t really like, and rewarding the ones you do, you can completely transform your pet’s manners. Unfortunately, this is somewhat easier said than done.
Most humans have spent years learning to look for, and point out, mistakes around them. To be a truly positive trainer, one must transform one’s thinking. Start by focusing on the good around you, rather than the bad. It takes a little practice, but it gets easier over time, and you’re likely to find it makes you a happier person, too.
So how does this apply to pets? Many of our pets crave attention, and they’ve learned that some of the best ways to get attention include “undesirable” behaviors, such as scratching the couch, chewing on your shoes, and jumping up on you. Since we tend to focus on what’s wrong, these behaviors get them what they want – our undivided attention (and remember, even negative attention is better than being ignored in the eyes of most pets).
It’s time to change the picture for your pet. The next time you are sitting quietly at home and reading a book, while your cat purrs on the couch next to you, or your dog lies quietly at your feet, take a moment to notice and reward that desirable behavior by praising or petting your pet – or even surprise your pet with a treat (or pull out your pet’s favorite toy). This teaches your pet that being quiet and calm around you can be very rewarding.
If, on the other hand, your pet does something you don’t like (e.g., jumps into your lap, knocks the book from your hand, etc.) simply move aside to dislodge your pet, or get up and sit elsewhere, all without saying a word to your pet. Don’t even make eye contact (since that would be attention).
Follow these suggestions, and you’ll find that some of your pet’s nuisance behaviors begin to decrease and even disappear. This happens because you are teaching your pet that the behaviors you like get attention, while nuisance behaviors achieve nothing.
So go out there and catch your pet in the act of doing something good. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s sure to improve your relationship with your pet and make your home a happier place.