Rhodesian Ridgeback Training – An Introductory Course

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Rhodesian Ridgebacks" by Tarah Schwartz. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Tarah Schwartz

Clear Expectations

During your training sessions with your Rhodesian Ridgeback, it’s important for you to have clear expectations of yourself. Remember, without clear and consistent communication, no progress can be made. Unless you’re willing to dedicate a significant amount of time and work to your dog’s training, you may end up disappointed with your dog’s progress. If you only work with your dog once or twice per week, you’re not going to see the progress in your Ridgeback’s training that you would if you were training her every single day. It’s also going to be more difficult for your dog to remember what you asked of her in the last session if you only work with her infrequently. This will result in you both becoming frustrated and losing focus. Instead, set small, manageable goals for yourself and your dog. If you can only manage a few minutes of training in the evenings after you come home from work, then schedule that training session every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. Your dog is going to get more out of a daily ten-minute session than she would a once weekly 30-minute training session.

Rhodesian ridgeback outdoor walk
Photo Courtesy – Joanne Baker

When working with your Ridgeback, you must also have reasonable expectations of him and where he is in his training. Do not ask more of your dog than he is capable of at a particular stage of his training. For example, if you’re able to get him to sit quietly and focus on you while inside your home, but he loses focus in your yard about half the time, you can’t expect to take him to the local dog park and have him listen to you. Expecting more of your dog than he can handle is unfair. You must always be willing to set your dog up for success. Training must be done in small steps, progressing only when you’re confident that your dog can handle it. If you know your dog will make a mistake or react badly to a situation, it’s best to avoid that situation if possible until you are certain he is trained enough to handle it.

No matter how your training session goes, it’s important for you to always end the session on a good note. Even if your dog is struggling with a certain concept or is getting tired and losing focus, you must try to end the session with positivity. Ending with frustration or negativity will only set your dog up for failure during the next session. You want her to look forward to training. If your dog is getting tired or doesn’t seem to understand what you’re asking of her, go back to something she’s good at. Ask her to sit or lie down a few times. Even if the task is simple, you will be able to reward her for performing the command. After a few successful repetitions, you can end the session and try the more difficult task again later.

Operant Conditioning Basics

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that is based on the idea that behavior can be shaped based on the environmental response to the behavior, whether it is a reward or a punishment. Renowned American psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner was one of the first to promote the idea. Skinner did not believe that animals and humans learn solely through classical conditioning, as he believed that we are too complex to learn only through such a simple method. He hypothesized that behaviors followed by an enjoyable, positive experience are more likely to be repeated than behaviors followed by unpleasant or negative experiences. Skinner referred to these environmental responses as operants. Skinner theorized that there are three types of operants: neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishments. Neutral operants do not increase or decrease the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future. The environmental response is not positive or negative enough to affect future behavior. Reinforcers, which can be positive or negative, increase the likelihood of a certain behavior being repeated in the future. Punishments are always negative and will discourage the behavior from being performed again.

Rhodesian ridgeback puppy
Photo Courtesy – Beth Keener

One of the most popular and successful methods of dog training is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement uses the idea of Skinner’s reinforcer operant to encourage a dog to perform a behavior on command. Generally, dogs are rewarded using praise, food, or toys. Carol Vesely of Northstar Rhodesian Ridgebacks says, “Ridgebacks are very food motivated and will generally work well for food.” Unfortunately, positive reinforcement can also work against you in the development of bad habits. For example, if your Ridgeback bolts out the front door and is reward with an off-leash romp through the neighborhood and a good game of chase, he’s more likely to repeat the behavior in the future. Preventing bad habits from developing can only be accomplished by managing both your dog’s behavior and the environmental responses to his actions.

Negative reinforcement is another method of dog training, often used in combination with positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment, as it encourages a behavior to be repeated. This method works to reward the dog with the removal of an unpleasant sensation. To combine this negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement, you may simultaneously remove the pressure or unpleasant sensation and reward your dog with treats or verbal praise.

Punishment differs from negative reinforcement in that it discourages the dog from repeating the behavior in the future. For example, if you catch your Rhodesian Ridgeback in the act of attempting to dig a hole beneath your fence, you may disrupt his behavior with a loud clap, stomp, or “No!” If his attempts to dig a hole are always met with an unpleasant and startling noise, he’s less likely to attempt the behavior again in the future. However, the punishment a dog receives should never be too harsh. Serious behaviors such as fighting obviously deserve a harsher punishment, such as being sprayed with water, whereas that would too harsh of a punishment for digging a hole in the yard. If your punishments are too severe, you may find that they do not correct the bad behavior and instead result in fearful or aggressive reactions. Punishments should be used as little as possible and should never involve hurting your dog. Under no circumstances should you hit or kick your dog. Usually, a simple but loud clap or stomp, or at most a spray of water, should be sufficient.

Primary Reinforcements—Food, Toys, Playtime

Primary reinforcements typically stem from rewards that are biological in nature. This can include the use of food, toys, and playtime in training. Dogs naturally find food rewarding and will readily repeat behaviors that are followed with treats. Toys and playtime are used less frequently, but still reward the dog on a biological level. Play works as a reward by imitating a dog’s natural behavior. Dogs naturally find the thrill of chasing down and catching their prey rewarding, so it’s possible to simulate this behavior as a reward using a toy and a game of fetch or tug. Dogs with particularly high prey drives often find this type of reinforcement to be particularly rewarding. For Rhodesian Ridgebacks, some dogs may be more motivated by food, while others find play to be more valuable. Carol Vesely of Northstar Rhodesian Ridgebacks says, “It is not in their nature to automatically do what their owners ask of them, so you need to make it motivating for them to want to please you. Find what motivates your dog and use that as their reward.”

Rhodesian ridgeback trainingMost dogs are naturally food-motivated to some degree, so it’s one of the most popular ways to reward a dog for good behavior. Biologically, dogs need to food to survive, but more importantly, they just really enjoy eating. As with humans, it’s not uncommon for dogs to prefer certain foods over others, so you may need to try out a few different types of food to determine which ones your dog deems high value. Some dogs will work only for their favorite treat, while others are happy performing for a portion of their daily kibble.

For some dogs, their prey drive outweighs their motivation for food. For this type of dog, rewarding them with a toy or playtime may work better than food. Dogs with low prey drives may need some encouragement before they come to enjoy this type of reinforcement, or it may not work at all. The key to using play as a reward is to make it as exciting as possible. Handing your dog a squeaky toy is not exciting and it will not work as a reward. Toys that can be thrown or tugged on are ideal. Allowing your dog to jump or chase after the toy will trigger his natural instinct to give chase. Some dogs also thrive on vigorous games of tug-of-war. Whatever type of play your dog enjoys most, be sure to exaggerate your own excitement. If he sees how happy you are, he’ll get more enjoyment out of the reward than if you simply tossed his favorite ball across the yard.

Secondary Reinforcements—Attention, Praise, Clickers

Secondary reinforcements can also be considered learned reinforcements. Most dogs do not naturally find praise or attention rewarding, and the sound of a clicker means nothing to an untrained dog. They learn the value of these types of rewards through association with primary reinforcements. In the beginning, it can be helpful to combine secondary reinforcements with primary reinforcements until your dog learns the value of rewards such as praise or a marker noise such as the clicker.

Rhodesian ridgeback snow
Photo Courtesy – Heather Proper-VanValkenberg (4)

Attention and praise work well as a reward for many dogs without having to build the connection with primary reinforcements. However, not all dogs respond well to praise on its own. Deciding on a marker word, such as “good” or “yes” and using the same word consistently will help your dog understand the value of verbal praise. Be sure to say the word in a positive and upbeat way. Your tone and body language will speak more to your dog than your words in the beginning. Using verbal praise and even physical attention in connection to primary reinforcements will increase the value of these rewards so that eventually your dog will understand that she’s done the right thing when you say the marker word, even if she doesn’t get a treat.

Clicker training is similar to using a marker word, but instead of a verbal cue, you’re using a specific sound to reward the dog. Dogs will not immediately understand the value of the noise so you’ll need to build that association. Most trainers recommend focusing solely on building this connection before moving on in your dog’s training. For example, if you want to use the clicker as a secondary reinforcement, the first few training sessions should consist of you pressing the clicker and handing her a treat. After a few repetitions, your dog will learn that the click is associated with a treat. As you progress in your training, you can continue to combine the two reinforcements until your dog learns that performing the correct behavior will result in either a primary or secondary reinforcement.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment. Punishment is when a behavior is followed by an unpleasant experience, such as a loud noise. Punishments are used to discourage a dog from repeating certain behaviors. Negative reinforcement differs in that it actually encourages a dog to repeat a behavior. As previously mentioned, negative reinforcement works by rewarding a dog with the removal of an unpleasant sensation, such as pressure on the leash. When used correctly, it can be a valuable tool for training, especially when combined with positive reinforcement.

Rhodesian ridgeback grass
Photo Courtesy – Rebecca Weddell

An example of negative reinforcement can be found in traditional leash training. Most dogs will not naturally give in to leash pressure. Instead, they will brace against it and pull in the opposite direction of the leash. Negative reinforcement can be used to teach a dog polite leash manners by teaching the dog that the pressure of the leash will be released when he takes a step toward the pressure. By putting gentle pressure on the leash and immediately releasing that pressure the moment the dog steps forward, you are teaching him that the way he can relieve the discomfort of the leash is to give in to it. When combined with positive reinforcement, such as a treat or praise, your dog will quickly learn to walk in the direction that you are telling him to go.

Caution must be used when training with negative reinforcement because if you put too much pressure or do not release at the right moment, your dog can become fearful and develop aversive behaviors. Your timing on the release of pressure must be exact. If you do not release the moment your dog performs the correct behavior, he will not make the connection with his behavior and the removal of the pressure. You must also be aware of how much pressure you are putting on your dog. It should be enough to be mildly unpleasant, but never painful. Putting more pressure on your dog than he is comfortable with will result in fear, rather than learning. Negative reinforcement is best used in combination with positive reinforcement. If you have any doubts about your abilities to use negative reinforcement correctly, consult a professional trainer or simply use positive reinforcement on its own.

Hiring a Trainer/Attending Classes

Although some Rhodesian Ridgeback owners train their dogs successfully without the assistance of a professional, many find that hiring a trainer or attending training classes helps them accomplish their goals faster and with fewer problems. Even lifelong dog owners can benefit from the professional advice of a trainer or behaviorist.

With most trainers, you’ll have the option of either private lessons or group classes. Both types of class have their advantages, so you need to consider your dog’s current stage of training as well as your end goals before deciding which one is best for you. In private lessons, you have the benefit of the trainer’s undivided attention. This can be particularly helpful if you’re struggling with aggression or behavioral problems. In some cases, you may want to start with private lessons and progress to group lessons as you and your dog become more confident. In group lessons, you are able to work on training your dog with distractions. He’ll have to learn to focus on you with other dogs and handlers around. This will help prepare you both for the distractions of the real world. Group classes are also usually much cheaper than private lessons.

If you are struggling to get to your dog to understand what you are asking, or you believe your dog is developing bad habits or behavioral issues, you should definitely consider seeking professional advice. There’s no shame in asking for help and it’s better to start working on a solution to your problems before they escalate into more serious or dangerous behavior. Remember, trainers work with difficult dogs on a daily basis, so they are capable of handling a vast variety of different personalities and behaviors. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you and your dog can start working together rather than against each other.

Owner Behavior

One of the most important and often overlooked aspects of dog training is the handler’s behavior. You must be willing to hold yourself accountable for your actions and how they affect your dog. If you aren’t completely dedicated to your dog’s training, it’s likely that she will recognize this and react accordingly. She may try to bully you or simply ignore your commands. You must approach each training session with consistency, firmness, and enthusiasm.

If you are having difficulties in your dog’s training, it may be helpful to reflect on your own behavior and whether you may be causing the problem, at least in part. Dogs are aware of even the subtlest changes in body language, so you may be sending the wrong message without even realizing it. Having the willingness to reflect on your own behavior and body language and working to improve yourself will help you become a more effective trainer.

If you’ve reflected on your own behavior and have identified a number of reasons for your training struggles, it may be a good idea to get a second opinion. Having another set of eyes on you during training sessions may help you determine the source of your problems. If you have dog-savvy friends or family members, ask them to watch one of your training sessions. You can even seek professional advice if you feel that a trainer or behaviorist is best suited for the situation. No matter how skilled of a trainer you are, it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. Another person may be able to see something that you’ve simply missed or are unaware of.

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