One of the biggest undertakings of a dog owner is training their dog. Although it can be daunting and frustrating at times, it is possible, and can greatly enhance the bond between you and your dog.
One of the main things people want to know when they become dog owners is how to train a dog. First, you need to know how dogs learn.
How do dogs learn?
Dogs and humans are different, and this isn’t just in terms of physical resemblance, but also in how we think. Humans can consider an event after it has happened, and refer back to it. For example, if a child threw apple juice at a sofa, and then went off to school, when he got home you could say “Johnny, you were very naughty for throwing apple juice at the sofa!” and he would understand what he was being told off for.
A dog, on the other hand, will only associate rewards and punishment with the action that they have immediately done. If they urinate on the carpet in the morning, and then you tell them off for it in the evening, they won’t understand, even if you point at the wet stain.
Because of this, when training a dog, you need to keep in mind the idea of immediate consequences. If they do something that pleases you, reward them immediately, so that they associate the behaviour with the reward.
Reward or punishment?
In order to train a dog, they need to associate certain behaviours with consequences.
These consequences can be either rewards or punishments. A reward will make the dog more likely to repeat that behaviour, while a punishment may make them less likely to do that behaviour again.
Often, people think that they have to be strict with their pets, and punish them so that they know they have done wrong. However, consider the relationship that you want with your pet. If they associate you with a lot of punishment, they may come to fear you, whereas if you always treat them for being good, they are only going to love you more.
Furthermore, punishment-only dog training could harm their behaviour and cause social problems. For example, if they jump up people that they meet, and you yell at them each time they do, they may then associate the punishment with other people (and not the naughty action of jumping up at them), and become fearful or aggressive towards other people in general.
Instead, you can get good behaviour out of your dog by using rewards as incentives. Getting your dog to sit calmly while another person approaches and then rewarding them with a belly scratch, a treat, or a game after they have behaved well, will eventually make your dog want to sit and behave when new people arrive, knowing that they will have fun afterwards.
How to train a dog
Dog training boils down to two basic points.
- Reward good behaviour.
- Do not reward bad behaviour.
The first point is quite simple, but the second may be a bit tricky.
Reward good behaviour when dog training
You need your dog to immediately associate good behaviours with rewards. We’ll use an example of teaching your dog to sit.
Choose a trigger word that you (and all the family) can consistently use (look below for more about consistency while dog training) and use it in a clear tone while getting them to sit. The most common trigger word used is simply “sit!”, in a firm, yet not-scary, tone.
When they have sat while you have said the trigger word, reward them. Do this every time, and they will associate the behaviour and the reward with the trigger word, and begin to sit on command.
This method can be used on all sorts of behaviours.
What is a good reward for a dog?
Dogs love positive things. They love food, they love affection, and they love fun.
One of the most common ways to reward a dog is through treats, but this can lead to over eating throughout the day, and even to obesity.
While it is fine to use treats every now and then, a good play, scratch or a quick game with their favourite toy can work just as well. Look out for what your dog loves, and then use that an incentive during your dog training sessions.
Do not reward bad behaviour when dog training
If you are rewarding dogs when they do good things, it follows that you shouldn’t reward them when they do bad things.
This isn’t to say that you must yell and punish them if they do something you don’t like, but simply showing them that they will not get any results when they are being naughty will, with consistency, put a stop to bad behaviour.
Let’s use an example of tugging on the lead. When you are walking your dog, he or she may start pulling as a natural outlet of eagerness to move faster or move off to one side.
If you let them pull you along, you are rewarding them with what they want, and they will continue to do the behaviour on subsequent walks.
However, if your dog pulls, and you stop walking and firmly hold the lead until they come to heel by you, and not let them walk until then, then they will begin to associate tugging on the lead with stopping and not getting anywhere, and will eventually stay to heel.
Or if your dog excitedly jumps up you seeking attention and love when you enter your home, and you bend down to play with them and scratch them and rub their belly, they will associate jumping up you with that result. If you want to stop that, when they jump up you, standing still, ignoring them, and looking towards the sky until they calm down will show them that jumping up you gets no results, and they will eventually stop it, with consistency. If you do this and let them calm down (and even respond to a “sit!” command) before bending down to greet them, they will eventually halt this jumping up behaviour.
Training can be confusing for dogs. There are a lot of factors in everyday life that can be distracting to your dog during training, so your consistency is important.
When teaching your dog to sit, for example, use the same trigger word all the time. “Sit!” is clear and to the point, whereas using “Sit!”, “Sit down”, “Get down”, “Sit still” e.t.c interchangeably could be confusing.
Bear in mind that to dogs, English is a second, much more advanced language, and they won’t be able to easily understand you unless you are clear.
You need to make sure that people who interact with your dog, particularly on a common basis, such as other family members or close friends, use the same trigger words that you have decided upon.
Furthermore, they need to behave the same way. In the example used above about dogs jumping up to greet you, make sure that when your friend enters your house, they don’t fuss your dog until they have settled down and stopped jumping around.
The more consistent you are, the more success you are likely to experience
Start small and gradually work up to bigger and better things
You shouldn’t expect major successes immediately from your dog. Expecting them to be able to do big things immediately will only lead to frustration.
If you are teaching a “stay” command, for example, teach them to stay only for a few seconds before rewarding them, until they have learned that and can do it perfectly, then begin extending the time in which you make them hold a stay.
Gradually increase the time and complexity of commands, once your dog has mastered the very basic.