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What are the Most Important Things to Focus on When Dog Training?

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Dogs are always learning. They’re paying attention to their surroundings, trying to figure out how to get more of what they want or less of what they don’t want. So that means many times, even when you aren’t actively engaged in training classes or exercises, you’re passively training your dog. 

As an outside observer, being both a dog mom and a trainer, I will witness certain actions dog guardians take when working with their dogs – and, there are times I’d just like to jump in and help! When I’m being hired as a force-free, humane trainer, then it’s my place to do so. 

Some of the training steps that I often see that could be refined have to do with language differences and language barriers, misconceptions, assumptions, and unrealistic expectations. The following tips outline a pawsitive approach to some of these common hurdles.  

Stop, Look and Listen 

First, it’s important to understand how dogs communicate – they have their own language. “Dog-lish” if you will. They can tell you with a loosey-goosey wiggly body that they are relaxed and happy. Other times, a tucked tail or trembling body can indicate a dog is upset, not feeling well, or scared. In addition to body language, vocalization is also a way they communicate. One type of bark might be for attention; another tone means there is someone on the property. A low muffled growl followed by a higher pitched, happy bark could mean “let’s play” while a deeper, longer growl followed by intense short deep barks might be saying “Back off! I don’t know if I can trust you.” The goal is to learn to read your dog’s style of communication, including body language, vocalization, mannerisms and repertoire of behaviors, so you have a better idea of what he or she is saying. Then you can respond appropriately.

Be Realistic and Understand the Species

Dog hair, muddy paws, maybe some extra drool, a puddle of water around the water bowl that trails along the floor, toys everywhere, the bone you trip over, and at least one doggy bed or crate are usually part of the package. You live with a dog. This is life with a dog. And you probably wouldn’t want it any other way. If you hadn’t considered some of these things prior to getting a dog, and all of a sudden you’re thinking about your white couch, you’ll need to think realistically about the species you’re living with. Teaching a dog to discriminate when it’s okay to be on the furniture is one way to compromise. Or teach your dog an alternate place to hang out, like in her own bed or on a mat or towel instead. YAY for items that are easily washable!

Treat Them with Kindness 

Yelling at your dogs when they’ve made the wrong choice doesn’t teach them what you want. It just either scares them into not wanting to be around you, or teaches them it’s best to ignore you, or to not do anything. It’s best to treat them with kindness and use positive reinforcement to capture and teach them what behaviors you would like to see repeated. This way, they’ll learn to make good choices and you’ll preserve the precious bond you share.

Ensure the Behavior is Actually Trained

Sure, your pup is smart! I know – they’re all smart! But that doesn’t mean after a dog learns to sit at home for his dinner that this same dog can perform this behavior in a variety of places 99.9% of the time. Guardians will often assume their dogs know certain behaviors because they respond to a specific person in a specific context. However, that is not necessarily the case. The best way to tell if your dog has generalized a specific skill is for someone else to ask the dog to do it and observe what happens. For instance, prompt a friend or family member to use a verbal and/or visual cue to ask the pup to sit or lie down somewhere unfamiliar to determine if the dog really excels at these life skills. This exercise is not meant to “test” the dog or the pet parent but to help guide them to work together on new training goals. 

Think About Motivation and Be Generous 

You’ve just asked your dog to leave something alone on the ground when out for a walk. Lo and behold, your dog did it! YAY! Even though you said, “Good dog” this might not be enough motivation for the next time. Behaviors are driven by consequences, not the request. Oftentimes, the “What’s in it for me?” or “Why should I?” should be answered by more than guardians saying, “Good dog.” For those “expensive” behaviors — those that are really difficult for the dog or more important for the human — dogs should be highly compensated. As they say, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In this case, it might be a juicy piece of chicken! 

Training is an important, ongoing part of the relationship between you and your dog. And a pawsitive approach for positive results™ strengthens the human-canine bond. As your Inquisitive Canine’s guardian, when you listen, try to understand, train with kindness, adjust training goals as needed and know what motivates your dog, you can bring out the best in your best friend! 

Thank you for being an inquisitive dog guardian. 

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