Top 8 training tips for dog parents

training tips for dog parents

In my first book, The Dog Whisperer, I related the story of the psychiatrist wife and psychologist husband who called me for help because their dog was misbehaving and they had to keep him in the basement. These two professionals knew more about psychology and classical and operant conditioning than I will ever know. They had successfully raised their children with the most up-to-date theories and modern, non-violent methods. But they never thought to apply what they knew to their dog. So there he sat in the basement, because they didn’t know how to correct his barking, stealing and jumping behaviors.

Many people don’t realize that the same parenting principles that kept us safe and helped us learn, grow and shape our behaviors as children also work when it comes to training dogs. All unwanted behaviors in dogs can be relieved by applying some good, proactive parenting skills.

Good parenting is all about maintaining health and safety, setting realistic goals, being consistent, using nonviolent discipline, stimulating mental and physical growth with play and exercise, and making sure your dog has quiet time and a place to get away from it all.

1. Take care of his health

Successful training depends on you and your dog’s developing skills; however, his health must always be first and foremost. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to ensure your dog has a clean bill of health.

2. Use restraint and confinement

Many of my clients express an aversion to restraining or confining their dogs – some even feel it’s cruel and inhumane. Since positive training is all about flow rather than physically competing with the dog, they question how restraint and confinement could even be considered.

Restraining means putting a dog on a leash or cable. Confining means placing him behind a barrier such as a baby gate, exercise pen, fence or dog run. Think of a parent holding a child by the hand. Until the child becomes responsible, he or she must be protected. Similarly, until your dog is reliable and no longer running into the street, chewing up everything in the house, or eliminating on floors and carpets, management is required.

I tell clients that if they follow step-by-step procedures of positive training for tethering, the dog is not traumatized in the least. And within weeks, he will graduate and be allowed to roam free in the house without having to be tethered. Successful tethering eliminates the need for corrections because the dog can’t get into trouble and it keeps everyone safe. It is achieved easily and without stress by simply:

• Tying your dog’s leash or cable to something so it’s flat on the ground.

• Standing in front of your dog and giving high valued treats (like chicken) so that being restrained is associated with something wonderful.

• Progressing to asking him to lie down (a relaxed position) and then giving treats.

• Gradually increasing your distance and the duration before giving treats.

It would be abusive to tie a dog to something and allow him to exhaust or hurt himself trying to get free. That’s why it’s so important to acclimatize your dog gradually and never leave him tethered if you are not in the same room.

3. Have realistic expectations

Older or larger dogs can’t always do what younger or smaller ones can do, and vice versa. Train at your dog’s individual learning rate and take his physical and emotional abilities into account.

4 . Install routines and consistency

Being consistent includes establishing daily routines. A dog’s temperament and his ability to handle stress are directly related to his ability to “predict the future”. If you feed your dog at set times, play and walk at set times, groom and massage at set times, he will learn to relax and remain calm at other times. This doesn’t mean you should become a prisoner to a schedule or that spontaneity is lost; dogs have to learn to roll with life’s vagaries just as we do. It simply means that doing some things routinely through the day can dramatically improve his stress management skills.

Inconsistent human behavior results in sloppy and inconsistent behavior from the dog. A good example is getting a dog to “stay”. For example, don’t say “stay” then walk out the door without releasing the dog. The dog will quickly realize he can get up whenever he wants because there’s no one around to tell him otherwise. It’s important to give a clear signal when asking for a behavior – and another clear signal to complete it. “Stay” must always be linked with a release signal such as “okay”. Lastly, every family member needs to use the same signals. If everyone isn’t consistent, the dog won’t be either.

5. Give him exercise and employment

Effective training includes providing your dog with sufficient exercise and employment. There are two times during the day when your dog’s afterburners kick in and you’ll see him running and sliding across the kitchen floor, jumping and bumping into you and the furniture, chewing, stealing and more. This happens early in the morning up to around 11 a.m. and again in the early evening between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. If you don’t give your dog something to do to redirect this energy, he will find something to do on his own.

The solution is simple. Become your dog’s employer by providing “jobs” such as hunting and “killing” treat-filled toys, playing hide-and-seek, teaching him to put his toys in his toy box, and so on. Employment is important because it not only provides stimulation but also promotes and develops a sense of self, purpose, and pride. The objective of giving your dog a job is to establish yourself as boss. When you become his employer, you tell him when and where she should do all these behaviors…or not. And with that leadership role established, everyone lives happily ever after.

6. Incorporate play and discipline

Having fun and playing with your dog are the cornerstones to developing the happiest, healthiest relationship possible. All training is a game and all behaviors are tricks. If it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for your dog. That being said, new trainers often have a difficult time reconciling positive training with discipline. After all, if a dog isn’t being reprimanded and corrected, how can a behavior become reliable?

Discipline means setting boundaries and enforcing rules. It does not mean using physical punishment. The answer lies in learning the difference between correcting the behavior and correcting the dog. The deal you make with your dog includes a promise of no hitting, kicking, shocking, pinning, or jerking. However, the dog must earn everything he wants. So rewards such as affection, tug games, fetch, going for a walk, getting on the furniture, getting to sniff on a walk, and so on, are given in abundance if the dog earns them. It’s simple. Teach your dog to sit, lie down or stay or walk by your side, and if he does these things, he gets everything he wants. This is done incrementally, beginning at a kindergarten level and progressing to a PhD.

7. Give him quiet time

Imagine constantly have your senses bombarded with the sights, sounds, touches and smells of the world. If you didn’t have the opportunity to get away from it all now and then, you might get really grumpy. It’s important to keep training sessions short, and play times structured for duration and intensity.

Dogs are supposed to relieve stress, not increase it. Incorporating and practicing these seven suggestions will ensure a safe, happy, lifelong relationship of peace with your number one fan – your dog!

8. Proactive vs. reactive

People who have problems with their dogs often create an environment of militaristic competition. This is because we are a reactive society. We wait for stuff to happen and then try to fix it. This means people often react to their dogs’ behavior by punishing them after the fact, in an effort to stop them from doing the behavior again. And there are many trainers out there who still foster the notion that punishment works. So navigating these waters can sometimes be tricky.

Rather than trying to fix a problem by stopping a behavior in the act, be proactive. Set up the environment so the behavior can’t happen, then replace the problem behavior with something else. You don’t give a young child a box of crayons and say, “I’m leaving for the day, don’t use these crayons.” What’s going to happen? When you get home there will be drawings all over the walls. A proactive parent teaches the child to use a coloring book, and keeps the crayons locked up until she knows the child will use the book instead of the walls.

Proactive training involves setting up the environment for safety and success by preventing the dog from making the mistake in the first place. Then the dog is taught and rewarded for successes.

Always ask yourself what you want your dog to do in any given situation. If you don’t know, he can’t possibly know either. Teach him substitute behaviors. Instead of jumping, teach him to sit. Instead of stealing food off the table, teach him to run to his bed whenever food is put on the table. Instead of digging, teach him to hunt for hidden treats.


Paul Owens began training dogs in 1972. He is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and a leading proponent of positive, nonviolent animal training. He is author of The Dog Whisperer and The Puppy Whisperer and is featured on the Dog Whisperer DVDs, Volumes One and Two. Paul is also director of the Raise and Praise Teacher Training Program, and the founder/director of the children's after school violence prevention program, Paws for Peace.