Tuesday, May 28th, 2024

P Paws A Moment by Breonna Loxley
Grow Flowers


Of all the lessons being a dog owner has taught me, the power of positive reinforcement has been one of the most meaningful. My dog has learned how to bow his head in "prayer," wrap himself up in a blanket, and jump into my arms and up onto my back. He can weave between my legs, "be dead," cross his paws, and crawl, among other adorable things. Currently, we're teaching him to hold an object in his mouth and carry it. He already excels at "hold it," but as soon as you ask him to "bring it," he drops the toy and prances on his merry way. And when he can't figure it out, he throws himself on the floor and thumps his tail while I ask him what he's doing. I try to hide my exasperation that such a smart boy can't grasp the concept of carrying something on command! Except, it wasn't that he couldn't grasp it- it was that I couldn't grasp how to communicate what I wanted.

Whether you're teaching a dog fun tricks or real-life skills like potty training and leash walking, patience and positive reinforcement are key. Even though Riggs struggled to understand "bring it," we kept trying. The solution to finally conveying what I wanted was positive reinforcement- using play to motivate the behavior, and high verbal praise and excitement when he got it right. After we accomplished four great repetitions of the command, I released him from training and watched as he ran around like a goofball because he was so pleased with himself. A dog's ability to understand human cues is amazing. Sometimes it's easy to forget they can't actually read our minds- or speak our language. When I introduce something new to my training routine with Riggs, I make sure to reinforce all progress with treats and a happy tone of voice. Training is a fun and rewarding way to bond with Riggs, and I always learn just as much as he does from the experience.

Whether you're teaching a dog
fun tricks or real-life skills . . .
patience and positive reinforcement are key.

Learning to communicate in ways other than using language is more than teaching tricks- it means earning trust and forging bonds. The friendships human beings can form with species other than our own are extraordinary. Whether I'm guiding Riggs in learning a challenging new skill, imploring a terrified dog to trust me, or introducing an unsocialized feline to touch, patience and positive reinforcement always facilitates learning and trust in a way anger or force never can. As Persian poet Rumi wrote, "It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder." More than anything, working with Riggs has allowed me to see the value in this wisdom. Positive reinforcement is not only for those who wish to train, but for anyone in any leadership role, human to animal . . . or human to human.

Breonna Loxley is an animal care technician at an animal shelter. She is an avid artist, writer, and animal-lover. She lives with her parents, a younger brother, two cats, and one dog.