3 Tips For Using Dog Training Methods On People

03/06/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015


When I meet someone new and say that I'm a dog trainer, the first question I usually get is, "Can you train my husband?" My reply is always, "Yep!"

Being a dog trainer is all about molding behaviors, and behavior is something that all animals have in common. I bet you're behaving right this second! With dogs, I use science-based, force-free methods to reward behaviors I like and to extinguish behaviors I don't. It absolutely works on people, too.

Here are a few dog training lessons that can be applied to some of the two-legged animals you love most.

1. Understand what your dog/human finds rewarding.

My very first instruction to a new dog owner is to make a list of things their dog finds rewarding. In training, you can use these rewards to encourage the likelihood that your dog will behave as you'd like him to. Behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to occur again. Dog rewards are pretty easy to classify. They are usually motivated by, among many other things, hot dogs, dried liver, water, tennis balls, a trip to the park, verbal praise or bully sticks. A hot dog will usually be a more effective reward than a "Good boy," but, if used properly, both can work to encourage desired behaviors.

Coincidentally, many of these rewards work on humans too. I mean, who doesn't like hot dogs and parks? However, in our realm, money is the most commonly used for reinforcement. It is usually more effective as reinforcement than a "nice job," although verbal praise has its place. No two animals find the exact same things rewarding. The trick is to find the equivalent to your dog's $100 bill and your human's freeze-dried liver snap.

2. Be clear about what you're praising.

Positive reinforcement dog trainers often use a handheld clicker, a little noise maker, to communicate to a dog that he has done something correctly. The sound is repeatedly paired with a reward, usually food (see above). It's used as a kind of pinpointing tool: when the dog hears the click, he knows whatever he was doing in that exact instant was correct. This produces more efficient and precise learning than, say, giving praise at the end of several trials, or trying to shove food in the dog's mouth the second that he successfully lies down.

This works for people too. If my employee does something particularly good, a small bonus on the spot is going to be a lot more effective at getting more instances of that particular behavior than giving a larger bonus at the end of the year.

3. Strive to be the source of good things their life.

One of the most famous animal trainers in history, Ivan Pavlov, rang a bell and paired it with food until the sound of the bell was enough to make the dogs salivate. This is learning by association -- a.k.a. classical conditioning, or Pavlovian conditioning -- and it works on dogs and people. Be the source of good things in your dog's life, and you're paying into the bank of love. Then, when you end up doing something your pup might find punishing, like lunging at him to keep him from drinking anti-freeze, you'll have enough for whatever withdrawal you might need to make.

What is love but the repeated association of good things with another animal... or person (or even object)? This is why you arrive with flowers or wine if you're invited to someone's house, or pick up the tab for dinner when you're on a date. It's why we give a diamond to a lover and free pens to clients. It's all a ploy to get the person to associate the good thing (Wine! Diamonds! Pens!) with you. A single negative association can unravel a lot of positive ones. The one time I had a tooth drilled at the dentist left a much bigger impression than the dozens of stickers and free toothbrushes I received at every visit.

Once you have the skills to train your human, your dog should be an easy student. And a good teacher too! Next time you're leaning over to pick up your dog's poop, ask yourself who has trained whom.

Illustration by Josee Bisaillon, used with permission.