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Many people can’t imagine life without dogs. We admire and adore them for their loyalty, unconditional affection, playful exuberance and zest for life. Nevertheless, dogs and people are very different animals. Although officially “man’s best friend,” dogs have some innocent but irksome tendencies—like jumping up to greet, barking, digging and chewing—that can make it downright difficult to live with them! To make the most of your relationship with your dog, you need to teach her some important skills that will help her live harmoniously in a human household.
Learning how to train your dog will improve your life and hers, enhance the bond between you, and ensure her safety—and it can be a lot of fun. Dogs are usually eager to learn, and the key to success is good communication. Your dog needs to understand how you’d like her to behaveand why it’s in her best interest to comply with your wishes.
If you ask around, you’ll get all kinds of advice about training your dog. Some people will tell you that the key is to use a “firm hand”—to make sure your dog doesn’t think she can get away with naughty behavior. Some people argue that you should only use rewards in dog training and avoid punishing your dog in any way. Some people insist that all you have to do is “be the alpha dog,” assert your status as the dominant leader of your “pack.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the glut of differing opinions out there.
Regardless of which method and techniques you use, effective dog training boils down to one thing—controlling the consequences of your dog’s behavior. If you want to influence the way your dog behaves, you need to:
- Reward behaviors you like.
- Make sure behaviors you don’t like aren’t rewarded.
One of the most frequent complaints of pet parents is that their dogs “just won’t listen.” But put yourself in your dog’s shoes for a moment. If someone was constantly chattering away in a foreign language that you’d never heard before, how long would you pay attention? Probably not for very long—because you simply wouldn’t be able to understand what the foreign speaker was trying to communicate.
To communicate clearly and consistently with your dog, you need to understand how she learns. Dogs learn through the immediate consequences of their behavior. The nature of those consequences determines how they’ll behave in the future. Dogs, like other animals (people included), work to get good things and avoid bad things in life. If a behavior results in something rewarding—like food, a good belly rub, playtime with dog buddies or a game of fetch with her pet parent—your dog will do that behavior more often. On the other hand, if a behavior results in an unpleasant consequence—like being ignored or losing things she finds rewarding—she’ll do that behavior less often.
Some training methods use punishment, like leash corrections and scolding, to discourage dogs from doing everything except what you want them to do. Other methods cut right to the chase and focus on teaching dogs what you do want them to do. While both tactics can work, the latter is usually the more effective approach, and it’s also much more enjoyable for you and your dog. For example, you can easily use treats, games and praise to teach your dog to sit when people approach during walks in the neighborhood. If your dog is sitting, she won’t be dragging you toward the people, jumping up when they get close enough, mouthing on their arms and legs, and so on. That’s pretty efficient training—no pain or intimidation needed. Alternatively, you could grab your dog’s leash and jerk her to the ground every time she jumps up to greet people, and you’d most likely get the same effect in the end—no more jumping up. But consider the possible fallout:
If you can teach your dog polite manners without hurting or frightening her, why not do it? Rather than punishing her for all the things you don’t want her to do, concentrate on teaching your dog what you do want her to do. When your dog does something you like, convince her to do it again by rewarding her with something she loves. You’ll get the job done without damaging the relationship between you and your best friend.
The most important part of training your dog is teaching her that it pays to do things you like. But your dog also needs to learn that it doesn’t pay to do things you don’t like. Fortunately, discouraging unwanted behavior doesn’t have to involve pain or intimidation. You just need to make sure that behavior you dislike doesn’t get rewarded. Most of the time, dog motivations aren’t mysterious. They simply do what works! Dogs jump up on people, for example, because people pay attention to them as a result. They can learn not to jump up if we ignore them when they jump up instead. It can be as simple as turning away or staring at the sky when your dog jumps up to greet or play with you. As soon as she sits, you can give her the attention she craves. If you stick to this plan, your dog will learn two things at once. Doing something you like (sitting) reliably works to earn what she wants (attention), and doing things you don’t like (jumping up) always results in the loss of what she wants.
As you teach your dog what you do and don’t want her to do, keep the following guidelines in mind:
Some people believe that the only way to transform a disobedient dog into a well-behaved one is to dominate her and show her who’s boss. However, the “alpha dog” concept in dog training is based more on myth than on animal science. More importantly, it leads misguided pet parents to use training techniques that aren’t safe, like the “alpha roll.” Dogs who are forcibly rolled onto their backs and held down can become frightened and confused, and they’re sometimes driven to bite in self defense.
Keep in mind that ditching the “alpha dog” concept doesn’t mean you have to let your dog do anything she likes. It’s fine to be the boss and make the rules—but you can do that without unnecessary conflict. Be a benevolent boss, not a bully. Good leadership isn’t about dominance and power struggles. It’s about controlling your dog’s behavior by controlling her access to things she wants. YOU have the opposable thumbs that open cans of dog food, turn doorknobs and throw tennis balls! Use them to your best advantage. If your dog wants to go out, ask her to sit before you open the door. When she wants dinner, ask her to lie down to earn it. Does she want to go for a walk? If she’s jumping up on you with excitement, wait calmly until she sits. Then clip on the leash and take your walk. Your dog will happily work for everything she loves in life. She can learn to do what you want in order to earn what she wants.
It’s easy to reward good behavior if you focus on teaching your dog to do specific things you like. Dogs can learn an impressive array of obedience skills and entertaining tricks. Deciding what you’d like your dog to learn will depend on your interests and lifestyle. If you want your dog to behave politely, you can focus on skills like sit, down, wait at doors, leave it, come when called and stay. If you want to enhance your enjoyment of outings with your dog, you can train her to walk politely on leash, without pulling. If you have a high-energy dog and would like outlets for her exuberance, you can teach her how to play fetch, play tug-of-war or participate in dog sports, such as agility, rally obedience, freestyle and flyball. If you’d like to impress your friends or just spend some quality time with your dog, you can take her to clicker training or trick-training classes. The possibilities are endless!
After you decide on some new skills you’d like to teach your dog, you’ll be ready to start training. To maximize her learning potential and make sure you both enjoy the training experience, keep the following basic tips in mind:
If your toddler was repeatedly sticking her fingers into open electrical outlets, what would you do? Would you sit her down and try to explain why that’s not a good idea? Would you smack her every time she did it? Nope, you’d probably buy some outlet covers. Voilà! Problem solved. Prevention is sometimes the best solution. When training a dog, the easiest way to deal with a behavior problem might be to simply prevent the undesired behavior from happening. If your dog raids the kitchen trash can, you could spend weeks training a perfect down-stay in another room—or you could move the trash can to a place where your dog can’t get to it. Prevention is also important if you’re trying to train your dog to do one thing instead of another. For example, if you want to house train your dog, she’ll learn fastest if you use a crate to prevent her from making mistakes inside while you focus on training her to eliminate outside.
Many behavior problems can be prevented by providing “legal,” acceptable ways for your dog to express her natural impulses. There are some things that dogs just need to do. So rather than trying to get your dog to stop doing things like chewing, mouthing and roughhousing altogether, channel these urges in the right direction. Increased physical activity and mental enrichment are excellent complements to training.
POOR BEHAVIOR CAN BE A RESULT OF AN UNDERLYING ISSUE THAT A CHANGE OF DIET, AND/OR ACUPUNCTURE CAN HELP WITH.
Information courtesy of ASPCA