Training Methods

One of the first things many families work on when they bring a new dog into their home is training. Whether you want the dog to follow basic obedience commands, have good manners, go potty in a designated spot, perform tricks, assist people, or participate in dog sports, you just can't get around the fact that training requires lots of time and patience.

Should I rub my dog's nose in it?

We've all heard stories of dogs who just don't "get" housebreaking until they have their noses rubbed in the mess they've left on your new carpet. You can file these stories under the category of "old wives' tales."

Here's the thing: dogs actually like the smell (and sometimes even the taste) of dog poo. But aside from that, any reputable trainer will tell you that positive training works much better than any type of aversive training.

Scolding a puppy
It's okay to firmly say, "No!" but harsher scolding may result in rebellion.

Many dogs will simply rebel if you try to train them using punishments rather than rewards. In the house-soiling example, dogs who are belittled, harshly scolded, or beaten may actually make more messes than they would have if trained positively or even more than if they were left untrained.

How does positive training work?

What your dog craves most is your attention, affection, and approval, so the absolute best way to train is to lavish all three on your dog when you see him or her do the right thing. This isn't to say you just ignore the bad behaviors, but you definitely want to focus on "catching" the animal doing something right.

Perhaps an example from basic obedience training will make it clear how this can work. With your dog on a leash and positioned near you, say the dog's name and then say "SIT" in your best command voice. If your dog is not yet trained, chances are good you will simply get a blank stare.

Next, try saying it again, this time pushing lightly on the dog's hindquarters. Don't pet the dog or beg for compliance. You might also try pulling up gently on the leash while pushing on the rear end to encourage the dog to perform the skill. Eventually, your dog will likely sit down, either because he gets it or because he is tired of standing there. He or she may even sit down out of boredom.

When the dog does sit, it's time to celebrate. Scratch those ears, say "good dog" in a very happy voice, then say "good sit!" Make sure to repeat the command as part of the praise you are giving to the dog to reinforce the connection between the command "sit" and the dog's hind end being on the ground.

Attentive puppy sitting
Once the dog sits, it's time to lavish with praise.

You might also pull out a favorite toy to let the dog know that when he or she finishes the hard work of learning a new skill, fun and frivolity will follow. Incidentally, this is how drug detection dogs are trained. They get to play with a rolled up towel, initially just as a game. Then the towel is laced with drugs and hidden. When the dog finds the towel, he gets to play tug. Eventually, they learn that following the scent of the drugs leads to a good time. (OK, we could have said that better, but you get the idea.)

Should I use treats as a reward?

Whether or not you give your dog treats as part of the training routine is entirely up to you. They are often a handy tool to help your dog maintain focus. However, they can easily lead to obesity if over-used. If you do choose to use treats, make sure they are very small, and adjust your dog's regular food portions accordingly.

Here's the way treat training should go. When you get to the point where your dog has obeyed a command, you simply give the dog a treat while you are heaping on the praise.

As your dog masters the skill, you will start to back off on the treats, giving them randomly when the dog obeys a command. The random rewards will be enough to keep your dog performing the new skill because he will continually wonder if the next time will be the magical one when a treat appears as a reward.

Puppy training
Treats can be used to help direct your dog to do what you want, and as praise.

Treats may also be used as a way to position your dog for success. For example, if you want the dog to sit, you can hold the treat in front of the dog's face, then raise it. The dog's head will come up, following the treat, which will likely cause the dog's hind end to lower onto the ground. Then you can pretend the dog actually understood your command and reward the progress with the treat and some praise. Eventually, the dog will understand the link between the command and the action.

What is clicker training?

When you use a clicker to train a dog, you are simply using the noise of the clicker to reward the dog while he or she is performing the skill you have commanded. Advocates say using a clicker allows you to reward the dog more quickly than you possibly could with a treat or praise. You simply hit the clicker as the dog starts to perform the skill, then follow up with whatever reward you are using. Soon the dog knows that when he or she hears the clicker, rewards are sure to follow.

Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning, which is a fancy way of saying that a dog is likely to repeat actions that have positive consequences and avoid actions that have negative consequences. Using a clicker allows you to positively reinforce each tiny step the dog takes toward complying with your command. For example, the act of rolling over may involve the dog sitting, then sliding into a down position, then rolling to the side, then raising the legs, and finally completing the rollover. You can click for each step the dog completes, allow you to reinforce every bit of progress as it is made.

Correcting after bad behavior

Rewarding good behavior is one thing, but how can break your dog of a bad habit without using punishment? There's nothing wrong with telling your dog "No!" when he or she has done something you don't want done, such as chewing on a shoe. However, you will want to immediately direct the dog to the behavior you wish to see, such as by substituting a bone for the shoe. Once the dog has starting chewing on the bone, you will reward the good behavior as above.

For a dog who soils in the house, you can say "NO!" when you discover the dog in mid-squat. You will then want to take the animal to the designated potty spot, if possible while they are still in the act. When the dog finishes relieving himself or herself, you give praise and rewards. It doesn't take long for the dog to associate the potty spot with good things like treats and belly rubs.

Above all, make sure you allow the dog time to learn a new skill. They don't have terribly long attention spans, so your training time will be somewhat limited. Most experts suggest no more than 5 - 10 minutes at a time, although you can repeat the lessons several times each day. Be patient and be positive. Your dog will eventually figure out what you want him or her to do.

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