Successful training depends on your skills as well as your dog’s health, history, daily routine, diet, age, sleep and exercise patterns, and breed predispositions. There are, however, some basic tenets all dogs can benefit from. Remember that her health is your first concern. As soon as you adopt your new canine bundle of joy, make an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure she has a clean bill of health. Then you can begin the training process.
1. Plan ahead
Collect everything you and your new dog will need, including highly valued treats, a bed, a proper buckle or Martingale-style collar, a six-foot nylon leash, wire tethers and a training clicker if you choose to use one. Create an environment that will promote success by puppy-proofing your house (remove inappropriate chewing objects like shoes, stuffed animals and the remote control), and appropriately using tethers, kennels, baby gates and exercise pens.
2. Make a behavioral wish list
Positive training isn’t about teaching your dog to stop doing something. It’s about teaching him what you want him to do instead. If you don’t know what you want him to do, he won’t be able to figure it out either, and both of you will end up barking at one another in frustration. For example, it isn’t about how you can get Buster to stop jumping; it’s about teaching him to lie down when people come through the door. It isn’t about getting him to stop chewing slippers; it’s about teaching him to chew appropriate toys and ignore slippers.
Sit down with your family and make a wish list of likes (desired behaviors) and dislikes (unwanted behaviors). Learn from books, DVDs and trainers how to shape the behaviors you want, step by step. Then you can proactively teach your dog exactly what he is supposed to do rather than reactively try to correct unwanted behaviors.
3. Use consistent communication
We often inadvertently teach our dogs to do exactly what we don’t want them to do. For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on you, don’t reinforce the jumping by occasionally petting him when he jumps. Be consistent and always have him sit or lie down before being petted.
A big problem people have is getting their dog to “stay.” This also has to do with inconsistent communication. For example, don’t say “stay” and then walk out the door without releasing your dog from the command. She’ll quickly learn that she can get up whenever she wants. You must give her a clear signal when you ask for a behavior – and another clear signal to complete it.
Mixed messages also often cause confusion and unreliable behavior. For instance, don’t say “sit down” if you mean “lie down”. Don’t say “down” if you mean “off”, as in “get off the furniture” or “get off me” when the dog jumps. Make sure every family member is using the same signals.
4. Maintain 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 also take her physical and emotional abilities into account.
Here are some examples of unrealistic expectations:
• You can teach a seven-week old puppy how to sit, lie down or come in just a few days. But reliable behavior won’t happen until he reaches emotional maturity, between one-and-a-half and four years of age. Similarly, some people think a golden retriever should immediately like swimming. But many retrievers don’t wake up to who they are, so to speak, until they are a year old. Other breeds undergo the same process of discovering their traits as they mature.
• Many puppies cannot be housetrained and taught to reliably eliminate outdoors until they are seven or eight months old.
• Dogs that aren’t in good shape cannot perform some tasks, no matter how much you encourage them to try. If you want your dog to jog with you, consider the condition of her heart, lungs and paw pads. If your dog is old enough and fit enough, begin with a short distance, say a quarter mile. The classic example of a dog being asked to do something he couldn’t involves the guy who took his St. Bernard on a ski trip. They were on the slope no more than two minutes when the dog got stuck in a drift. He simply did not have the strength to move because at home he was sedentary and out of shape. The guy was flabbergasted as he watched four ski patrol rescuers free his 160-pound dog and sled him to safety. “He’s a St. Bernard for crying out loud! He’s supposed to be rescuing people, not have people rescuing him.”
5. Be positive and have fun
If it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for your dog. Physical punishment and aversive training methods are not necessary and do nothing to promote or foster safety, patience, kindness and compassion. If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated, stop the training session and try again later. Positive training methods are far less stressful for you and your dog, since the attitude is that everything is a trick.
6. Train incrementally
Remember this line and repeat it over and over: “If your dog won’t do what you want him to do, go back to the step where he was successful.”
There are basically three steps to every behavior:
1. Get the behavior.
2. Add the command (e.g. sit, down, come, etc.).
3. Add the 3 Ds of distance, duration and distraction, in baby steps.
The big secret of successful dog training is that dogs are contextual. This means if you teach your dog to sit on the living room carpet, you have to start over again on the tile floor in the kitchen. If you teach a dog to sit while you are kneeling, you may have to start over again when you stand up. Each of these is a distinct context or situation and you have to teach your dog what you want when you change the scene. If you find yourself thinking, “My dog knows this, he’s just being stubborn,” think again. Have you actually taught your dog to stay with other people who are standing around? Or with the vacuum cleaner running? Or while you were standing ten feet away from her?
7. Keep sessions short
Training sessions can last from ten seconds to five minutes. That’s all you need. In fact, several two- or three-minute sessions a day are better than one or two lengthy ones. By keeping each session short, you can keep your dog highly motivated and anticipating the next one.
8. Reinforce spontaneous behaviors
Half of all your training will not be done in formal sessions at all. Instead, by practicing the “Magnet Game,” you can reward your dog whenever you catch her doing something you like. For example, whenever you see her sit or lie down, or pick up a toy, or look at the cat instead of chasing him, reward her. All these unasked for behaviors can act like “magnets” that attract praise, affection and treats. Your dog will quickly learn how to attract you and your rewards and will start sitting or lying down more and more often. Or she will start bringing you toys or looking at you instead of chasing the cat. At first, give her the best treats you have when you catch her doing these behaviors. Gradually, praise and “life rewards” (getting to go for walks, chase a ball, get up on the couch, etc.) will replace the food, and the behaviors will eventually become established as rewards in and of themselves.
9. Give your dog a job to do
If you don’t give your dog a job, she will become self-employed. Here are some of the top occupations that dogs take on:
• Gardener – at the end of the day you come home and find your sprinkler heads and flowers torn up.
• Official greeter – your dog jumps all over your visitors and knocks them over when they walk in the door.
• Home decorators – you come home to find all your cushions and designer shoes chewed just the way your dog wants them.
• Alarm system – the only problem is that you can’t turn the alarm off, except when your dog finally goes to sleep, so the neighbors can hear her barking all day and often all night.
• Home security system – she protects the house from intruders. If she’s aggressive, poor old Uncle Bob might soon be referred to as “Lefty.”
• Firefighter – Your dog puts out all the imaginary fires on your furniture.
The solution to all this is simple. Become your dog’s employer. Employment is important because it not only provides the stimulation that your dog needs but it also promotes and develops a sense of self, purpose, and pride. The objective of giving your dog a job is not to stop her from doing any of these behaviors but to make you the boss. When you become her employer, you tell her when and where she should do all these behaviors…or not.
This means the gardener dog learns to dig in a sandbox, while the official greeter learns to lie down when the doorbell rings. The home decorator chews on appropriate objects, including “smart toys” like specially designed tennis ball machines and gum ball machines for dogs; voice activated toys; and appropriate chew toys such as Kongs and Buster Cubes. The alarm system dog learns to bark three times when the mail carrier or visitor arrives and then to lie down quietly. The hunter learns to chase, track, hunt and kill Frisbees, pieces of cheese, and Kongs. And the firefighter learns the proper places and times to eliminate.
10. Ask for help
Last but not least, ask for help if you can’t figure out how to train your dog, especially if you don’t know how to solve a problem. Aggression problems always call for a qualified professional trainer. Get referrals from your veterinarian, your friends, or from www.apdt.com. All trainers say they are positive and have lots of experience, but interview each one and ask specific questions about the methods they use. Do they ever jerk? Or use choke chains or shock collars? Or pin dogs on their back? If you hire someone and he or she suddenly starts yelling at your dog or using any of the aforementioned techniques, ask yourself if this is how you want your best friend treated.
Successful dog training is rooted in good old common sense, and learning to anticipate problems before they happen. Train with love, affection and consistency and, above all, keep yourself and your dog safe.