As a professional trainer, I’ve recently been in the middle of “puppy season.” At the training school where I’m on staff, recent puppy classes have been full with a wait list. Inevitably, at least one exasperated owner each week will exclaim, “Oh, my gosh! Puppies are so much work!” as she flops her overwhelmed self into a chair, her puppy dancing distractedly at the end of her leash, while fellow owners sigh and nod in agreement.
Yes, raising and training a puppy – or any dog – takes work, but it doesn’t need to feel overwhelming – at least, not the majority of the time! The more you know, the easier it gets. As I think about my own approach to raising and living with dogs, and that of many of my colleagues, I realize we engage in numerous behaviors that are extraordinarily helpful – yet it’s often difficult to get the pet owners we work for to try them! Don’t resist! The following five tips can help you train like a pro:
1. Start Proactively Managing Your Dog’s Actions
I can’t stress this enough! I would much rather proactively prevent the development of bad habits via humane management than give a puppy, adolescent, or newly adopted dog too much freedom and have to fix things later. When left to their own devices, it’s easy for dogs to experiment with unwanted behaviors, and, like people, dogs get good at whatever they practice!
Until your dog truly understands what constitutes the behaviors you desire from him and is motivated to perform them, you have only two good options:
a) Assume the role of active trainer and help the dog perform correctly, and
b) Prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behavior.
Of course, good training is the most reliable path toward long-term success, but in our busy lives, active training isn’t always convenient. Our households may contain a variety of people with varying levels of interest in the dog, and our days are met with myriad responsibilities. It’s not realistic to think we’re always in a position to play the role of effective dog trainer. That’s where management becomes so important.
Good management helps prevent problem behaviors, or prevents them from getting worse. It may consist of something as simple as restricting access to front-facing windows (if your dog nuisance-barks at passersby) or gating a counter-surfing dog out of the kitchen when you can’t supervise, or numerous other scenarios where a temporary “quick fix” might be appreciated. It’s a great way to create “breathing room” while deciding how best to address an issue in the long term.
2. Pay Your Dog in Valuable Currency – Treats!
When it comes to using food in training, what, how, when, and how much are powerful variables to consider. There are lots of ways to reinforce a dog beyond simply using food, but food is so powerful and so effective in the vast majority of cases that we feel its use should be thoroughly explored.
Because we’ve seen food treats work so well, trainers will usually experiment with a variety of food items to help discover what motivates a dog; we understand what is motivating in one setting might not cut the mustard under different circumstances.
Most trainers I know prefer high-quality, meat-based treats for the nutritional content and palatability, and we aren’t afraid to “go big” with “people” food like cooked meats or cheese when needed. While many of the name-brand dog treats on the market have considerable advertising budgets, and we’ve grown up on the commercials, for many dogs, simulated steak, sausages, and assorted crunchy biscuits just don’t cut it.
Once you’ve found a menu of food items deemed valuable to your dog, it’s important to consider how the food is used to affect both your training and your relationship.
In short, food given when a dog performs correctly is a reward. Food that only appears when a dog doesn’t respond to cues is a lure. Trainers stop using lures the moment they can get the dog to do a behavior without one, and are careful to quickly reward and shape the dog’s increasingly quicker and more accurate attempts at the behavior after hearing or seeing the cue.
If you find yourself luring often, it’s important to carefully evaluate the situation. It’s possible that your dog thinks the proper sequence is, “I hear or see the cue; I wait; the lure appears; I do the behavior; and I get the treat!” Another possibility is that he doesn’t understand the behavior as well as you thought he did; it’s not uncommon to think a dog “knows” something long before the behavior is truly fluent. (See “Fluency and Generalization in Dog Training,” December 2015.)
Even how you deliver a treat makes a difference. The biggest advantage to using soft treats is the ability to quickly break them up during delivery. When I want to make a big impression on my dog, I’ll offer what he thinks is 10 treats, when, really, it’s only two pieces quickly torn into even smaller pieces as I deliver them one at a time. Dogs are excellent cookie accountants, and 10 treats are better than two. As I often say to clients, “Treats just need to be big enough for the dog to taste them on the way down!”
When rewarding with food, remember, the greater the distraction, the higher the rate of reinforcement needed. If your social dog is highly excited by visitors and wants to jump, he might initially need a treat every two seconds to convince him it’s “worth it” to keep his feet on the floor when exciting guests are present. If your dog is very environmentally aware, he might initially need a treat for every step he takes while maintaining a loose leash. The key word is “initially.” Not forever, but we have to start somewhere.
If you’re concerned about the quantity of treats used, set aside and then use part of your dog’s kibble; it’s calories he’d eat anyway, and now you can leverage them to your benefit.
Another secret: It matters how you interact with your dog during treat delivery, too. Are you a robotic Pez dispenser, or are treats often accompanied by genuine praise and petting in ways your dog finds enjoyable? Keep in mind that classical conditioning is always at play. When you pair treats with praise and petting, you build positive associations that make your praise and petting more valuable to your dog, even when given without food.
3. Be a Team Leader, Not a Pack Leader
The concept of pack leadership is still alive and well in modern-day dog training, and, in my opinion, it brings with it a lot of baggage, namely that it’s important for humans to be “dominant” over their dogs by “winning” behavioral battles and not letting dogs “get away with” failing to comply with a “command.” Blech!
I do believe dogs benefit from leadership, but it’s more about their need for clarity in understanding what works and what doesn’t (good training!) than asserting dominance over a subordinate.
I prefer to think of my dogs and myself as a team. Sure, I’m the team captain, and as such, I appreciate being treated by my canine teammates in ways that feel “respectful,” but I also understand how, as team captain, it’s my responsibility to fairly teach my dogs the skills they need in order to help them appropriately exist in our human-oriented world.
Good trainers understand a dog’s “disobedience” is not a personal attack against the handler; it’s a sign the dog is struggling to handle something difficult, and a clear indication he needs some help. Misbehavior isn’t a dog’s dominant attempt to take over the household, it’s just behavior, and behavior can be changed.
4. Be Patient with Your Dog
Behavior can be changed, but true behavior change takes time. It’s important to be patient and commit oneself to a training protocol for a good bit of time before deciding it’s not working.
In one of my favorite books, Tales of Two Species, Patricia McConnell writes, “It takes growing humans about 20 years to learn to control their emotions (Okay, some people never do!), so be patient with your dogs and think in terms of months and years when training, not days and weeks.” I love that!
Remember to break behaviors into easier steps and look for small areas of improvement along the way. Modifying well-rehearsed and complex behavior issues happens through a series of baby steps. Learning to recognize those small elements of progress goes a long way toward motivating yourself to keep at it.
Keep a log of your dog’s behavior. Even something as simple as a few words on the calendar can help you recognize behavior trends.
In the meantime, if you’re dealing with complex behavior issues such as aggression or anxiety, know that you have the empathy of others. You brought a dog into your home because you wanted a canine companion, not a complicated training project. It’s okay to sometimes feel frustrated, but try not to let those feelings cloud your ability to maintain realistic expectations and recognize small accomplishments along the way.
5. Be Present with Your Dog
Take the time to really see the wonderful creature with whom you share your life. When you take your dog for a walk, pay attention to your dog. Interact with him. Play with him. Practice behaviors. Make it easy for your dog to be correct and reward correct behavior.
Also – and this is a big one these days – stay off of your phone! If you want your dog to pay attention to you when you feel it’s important, your dog needs to believe your attention, in general, has value, and he needs a strong history of rewarding experiences. Aspire to create meaningful, engaged interactions with your dog on a daily basis, whatever that looks like for the two of you.
Similarly, remember to meet your dog at his level during every training session and every real-world encounter. Clients often exclaim, “He’s not like this at home!” or “He does it at home!” when their dogs struggle to perform as requested in a busy group class. Dogs are context-specific; generalization takes time.
Do whatever is necessary to help your dog be successful given the current circumstances, and you’ll appreciate and enjoy the results for many years to come.
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Southern California.