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 behave and why it’s in her best interest to comply with your wishes.
How Should You Do It?
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.
Understand How Your Dog Learns
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.
If You Like the Behavior, Reward It
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:
- Your dog might decide that people are scary since she gets hurt whenever she tries to greet them-and she might try to drive them away by growling or barking the next time they approach.
- Your dog might decide that YOU are scary since you hurt her whenever she tries to greet people.
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.
If You Don’t Like the Behavior, Take Rewards Away
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.
Control Consequences Effectively
As you teach your dog what you do and don’t want her to do, keep the following guidelines in mind:
Consequences must be immediate
Dogs live in the present. Unlike us, they can’t make connections between events and experiences that are separated in time. For your dog to connect something she does with the consequences of that behavior, the consequences must be immediate.
If you want to discourage your dog from doing something, you have to catch her with her paw in the proverbial cookie jar. For example, if your dog gets too rough during play and mouths your arm, try saying “OUCH!” right at the moment you feel her teeth touch your skin. Then abruptly end playtime.
The message is immediate and clear: Mouthing on people results in no more fun. Rewards for good behavior must come right after that behavior has happened, too. Say a child in a classroom answers a teacher’s question correctly, gets up from his desk, sharpens his pencil and then punches another kid in the arm on the way back to his seat.
Then the teacher says, “Good job, Billy!” and offers him a piece of candy. What did Billy get the candy for? Timing is crucial. So be prepared to reward your dog with treats, praise, petting and play the instant she does something you like.
Consequences must be consistent
When training your dog, you-and everyone else who interacts with her-should respond the same way to things she does every time she does them. For example, if you sometimes pet your dog when she jumps up to greet you but sometimes yell at her instead, she’s bound to get confused. How can she know when it’s okay to jump up and when it’s not?
Be a Good Leader
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.
Training New Skills
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:
When teaching new skills, keep training sessions short and sweet
Like kids, dogs don’t have long attention spans. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but an ideal average training session should last 15 minutes or less. Within that session, you can work on one skill or switch between a few different skills.
To keep things interesting, try doing 5 to 15 repetitions of one behavior and then doing 5 to 15 repetitions of another behavior. You can also practice new skills and keep old ones polished by doing single repetitions at convenient times throughout the day. For example, before giving your dog a tasty new chew bone, ask her to sit or lie down to earn it.
Quit while you’re ahead
End training sessions on a good note, with a skill you know your dog can do well, and be sure to stop before either one of you gets tired, bored or frustrated.
For dogs, English is a second language
Dogs aren’t born understanding English. They can learn the significance of specific words, like “sit” and “walk” and “treat,” but when humans bury those familiar words in complex sentences, dogs sometimes have difficulty understanding.
They can also get confused when people use different words for the same thing. For example, some people will confuse their dogs by saying, “Fluffy, down!” one day and “Sit down, Fluffy!” another day.
Then they wonder why Fluffy doesn’t respond the same way every time. When teaching your dog a cue or command, decide on just one word or phrase, and make sure you and your family use it clearly and consistently.
Take Baby Steps
Dogs, just like people, learn best when new tasks are broken down into small steps. For example, you can’t go out and line dance unless you learn all of the individual steps first! When teaching your dog a new skill, begin with an easy first step and increase difficulty gradually.
If you’re training your dog to stay, start by asking her to stay for just 3 seconds. After some practice, try increasing the duration of her stay to 8 seconds. When your dog has mastered an 8-second stay, make things a little harder by increasing the time to 15 seconds.
Over the next week or two, continue to gradually increase the duration of the stay from 15 seconds to 30 seconds to a minute to a few minutes, etc. By training systematically and increasing difficulty slowly, you’ll help your dog learn faster in the long run.
Work on Only One Part of a Skill at a Time
Many of the skills we want our dogs to learn are complex. For instance, if you want to train a solid sit-stay, you’ll need to work on teaching your dog that she should stay in a sitting position until you release her (duration), she should stay while you move away from her (distance), and she should stay while distracting things are going on around her (distraction).
You’ll probably both get frustrated if you try to teach her all of these things at the same time. Instead, start with just one part of the skill and, when your dog has mastered that, add another part.
For example, you can work on duration first. When your dog can sit-stay for a few minutes in a quiet place with no distractions while you stand right next to her, start training her to stay while you move away from her. While you focus on that new part of the skill, go back to asking your dog to stay for just a few seconds again. When your dog can stay while you move around the room, slowly build up the duration of the stay again.
Then you can add the next part-training in a more distracting environment. Again, when you make the skill harder by adding distraction, make the other parts-duration and distance-easier for a little while. If you work on all the parts of a complex skill separately before putting them together, you’ll set your dog up to succeed.
If You Run into Trouble, Go Back a Few Steps
If you’re training your dog to do something new and you stop making progress, you may have increased the difficulty of the skill too quickly. Similarly, if you’re practicing a behavior your dog hasn’t performed in a while and she seems a little rusty, she may need some help remembering what you want her to do.
If you run into training challenges like these, just refresh your dog’s memory by making the skill a little easier for a few repetitions. Go back to a step that you know your dog can successfully perform, and practice that for a while before trying to increase difficulty again.
Practice Everywhere, With Everyone
If you learn that two plus two equals four in a classroom, you’ll take that information with you wherever you go. Dogs, however, learn very specifically and don’t automatically apply their knowledge in different situations and places as well as people do.
If you teach your dog to sit on cue in your kitchen, you’ll have a beautifully kitchen-trained dog. But she might not understand what you mean when you ask her to sit in other locations.
If you want your dog to perform new skills everywhere, you’ll need to practice them in multiple places-your home, your yard, out on walks, at friends’ houses, at the park and anywhere else you take your dog.
Use Real Rewards
Be sure to reward your dog with things she truly finds rewarding. Some dogs will happily work for dry kibble when training in your living room but ignore it if you’re training in the park.
Because the park’s a more distracting environment, paying attention there is a harder job for your dog. Pay her accordingly by using a reward worth working for, like small pieces of chicken or cheese, or a chance to run off-leash at the dog park with her buddies.
Also keep in mind that what your dog considers rewarding at any given time may change. If she’s just eaten a big meal, a scratch behind the ears or a game of tug might be most rewarding. If she hasn’t eaten in a while, she’ll probably work enthusiastically for tasty treats.
Training your dog will take time and effort-but it can be a great deal of fun for you and for her. And your hard work will pay off. With patience and persistence, you and your dog can accomplish great things.
An Ounce of Prevention
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.
Let Your Dog Be a Dog
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.
Finding Help and More Information
If you’d like to learn how to train your dog or if your dog has a behavior problem you’d like to resolve, don’t hesitate get help from a qualified professional trainer or behaviorist. To learn more about locating the right expert for you and your dog, please see our article, Finding Professional Help. Many Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPDTs) and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs or ACAABs) offer telephone consultations, in-home private consultations and training sessions, and group classes.
There are also a number of excellent books and DVDs to explore. Here are some of our favorites:
- The Power of Positive Training by Pat Miller (and other books by her)
- Dog Talk: What Your Dog Wants You to Know by Amber Drake
- Maran Illustrated Dog Training
- Dog-Friendly Dog Training by Andrea Arden
- The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
- How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks by Ian Dunbar, PhD
- Take a Bow-Wow! video series by Virginia Broitman and Sherri Lippman
- New Puppy, Now What? DVD by Victoria Schade
- Clicker Magic DVD by Karen Pryor