Sometimes dogs can seem like alien creatures to us. They eat things we find gross. They don’t speak our language (even though it sometimes seems like they do). Dog training can look like sorcery to the untrained eye. Here we’ve provided you with key tips to decode your dog and get better results from your training program!
- Know what you want your dog to do. Picture it as clearly as you can. We often focus on what our dogs are doing wrong, but it’s much more helpful to focus on what we would like them to do Is your dog jumping on guests? Perhaps a sit would be better? Begging at the table? Wouldn’t it be lovely if the dog lay calmly on their bed instead? Focusing on the positive, and actually visualizing exactly how you want the finished behavior to look, will help in several ways. First, it will give you a clear goal to work toward. Second, it will let you notice what your dog is already doing right, which you can then proactively reinforce so it happens more.
- Know your dog. Dogs are individuals, with varied likes and dislikes, and distinct personalities. Knowing your dog really well allows you to create a training plan that caters to their strengths, making it easier for both of you. Seeing what really gets your dog jazzed – liver treats, a game of fetch, a trip to the dog park – can help you select the most motivating reinforcers when you’re working on new behaviors. Knowing your dog well will also help you have realistic expectations for what they can achieve. Your terrier (bred for barking) may never be totally silent at the sound of the doorbell, but three barks followed by a stay on their mat is totally feasible! Your hound may always walk with their nose to the sidewalk, but they can do that while at your side instead of pulling on their leash like a freight train.
- Reward what you like. It’s easy to miss it when your dog is behaving perfectly, but it’s important that you “catch them in the act” of making good choices or minding their manners. As you reinforce the behaviors you like, they’ll happen more often. When your dog is getting good at certain behaviors, cue the dog to perform those behaviors instead of engaging in behaviors you don’t want. A solid down-stay on a dog bed can keep a counter surfer under control, and a strong sit is, again, a great way to keep a jumpy greeter from jumping.
- Set your dog up for success. Dogs are so incredibly adaptable that we often forget how confusing our human world can be to them. We can make things easier by setting clear rules and showing our dogs what is and is not appropriate canine behavior, rather than expecting them to guess. Managing the dog’s environment is also critical. It’s important that a dog’s world is interesting and enriching, but we also need to do what we can to prevent unwanted behaviors. This can include creating a safe area for a new puppy while they’re learning the ropes regarding what to chew and where to eliminate, clearing off kitchen surfaces to prevent counter surfers from succeeding on their quests, and anything else that staves off an unwanted behavior by changing the environment rather than trying to change the dog. In short, make your dog’s world as conducive as possible to helping them “get it right the first time.”
- Plan ahead! Think about what behaviors you would like your dog to perform, and in what environments it will be important for the dog to perform them, and then practice those behaviors in those environments well ahead of time. Dogs need time to synthesize new information before it is solid, and even once they’ve got it in one context, they will likely need to relearn it in a situation that looks totally different. Have patience and plan ahead to make sure your relationship with your dog remains harmonious.
- Think hard about the question: “Why is my dog doing this?” First, consider whether what’s happening is a normal behavior for the dog. Dogs eat, eliminate, chew, dig, and bark, and all of that is entirely natural. That doesn’t mean you must throw up your hands and accept whatever is happening. These behaviors can and should be directed to appropriate channels. The next thing to think about is whether an unwanted behavior is being reinforced, either by you, someone else, or the dog’s environment. Understanding the “why” behind a behavior from a dog’s perspective can help you sort this out. If your dog barks for attention and you yell, they may see that as good enough or “better than nothing” attention, and bark more often. Finally, ask yourself if you have taught your dog what you want them to do instead. Your dog may simply be doing the unwanted thing because no one has presented another option! This brings us full circle back to our first tip, figuring out what you want your dog to do, and then teaching them how to do it.
These strategies are the foundation of any good behavior program, and in fact, they are the true foundation of a strong human-canine relationship. If you’re stuck at any point along the way, contact us for help! We want you and your dog to succeed as a team! When you do, everyone will benefit.