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Training Your Dog

By Kim Downing

 

For the health and wellbeing of your dog, training should really not ever be considered an option when owning a dog.  Well trained dogs are more likely to be behaved and listen, be void of behavioral issues, be good in public, and are less likely to bite.  Owners also have a much closer connection with the dog when the time is taken to form a relationship through training.

 

My Favorite Training Method

There is always more than one way to teach anything, even when we are dealing with human education, and just like with people, every dog is an individual.  What might work best for one might not be the very best way to teach another dog the same task.  Training should always take into account a particular dog’s temperament, personality, and life experiences. 

For example, if I adopt a dog from the local animal shelter that has not been well socialized or has been mistreated, I cannot expect this dog to be at the same starting point in training as a 6 month old puppy with the right upbringing and socialization.  I will need to tailor any training program with these differences in mind.

For most every dog, my favorite way to train obedience behaviors is to use the marking behavior system.  This system has become increasingly popular in training over the last few decades, and the way most people are familiar with it, even if they don’t know it, is through sea mammal shows like dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, etc.  In these performance shows, the trainer uses a whistle to tell the animal when the correct behavior has been performed. 

With dogs we often use a tool called a clicker or a verbal marker like the word Yes! This marker is paired up with food for the dog so that each time he hears the click or word, he knows he will receive a treat.  More importantly, that marker ends a behavior so he knows exactly the moment he is correct, which lets us do fewer repetitions of a skill and lets him figure it out faster.

Markers are used for teaching new behaviors.  Once a dog knows a skill on command (at least 75%-80% reliability), you simply switch over to letting the dog know he did a good job.  Markers are also used for testing skills out in new places or if you wish to complicate a skill.  It is an excellent style of training for complicated behaviors.  For example, when I would teach a service dog to turn on a light switch on a wall, I never took the dog to the wall and assumed he’d know what to do! Instead, this task can be broken down into very easy parts for the dog to learn, and then using the marker I can complicate the task at the dog’s progress rate so that he is less frustrated and still eager to learn. 

It is important to develop a style of teaching a dog how to communicate with you.  Markers are one such system and truly do help a dog to learn in an efficient method. 

Maintaining Behaviors: What Now?

I find that many people worry that using a marker system or using treats in your training leads to a treat dependent dog.  This is really a myth.  Instead, utilizing food bits for many initial obedience skills is the easiest way to train a dog.  Dogs have certain primary motivators (those necessary for life) and food just about tops the list. 

That doesn’t mean you use food treats forever.  Instead, you gradually create a variable schedule of reward for the dog so that not each behavior receives a treat.  Instead, perhaps one skills gets a treat, two times go without a treat, and then the next two behaviors both receive a treat.  It’s kind of rewarding like a jackpot machine would.  You never know what you’re going to get, but you always have the chance to get something!

Additionally, life rewards become far more important than treats.  Some people like to call it Nothing in Life is Free.  I tend to think of it more like rewarding a dog with what he likes, wants, and values in life.  It teaches him that what he wants is contingent upon his behavior.  This is really, really powerful. You are the person that controls all the things your dog wants and needs. 

What kinds of things might one use in training? It really depends on the individual dog, but items like toys, his dinner, affection from you, any privilege, or even the door can be used quite well.  For example, the door is an excellent reward.  It’s not the door the dog wants but what is outside the door (i.e. a walk, playtime, etc.).  If a dog knows a skill like Sit or Watch Me, I can ask the dog to perform one of these skills when I am standing at the door with him.  If he doesn’t, the door doesn’t open.  It’s pretty simple, really.

Most dogs quickly learn how they receive things in life as well as who controls those things.  This creates a better listening dog who easily gives you respect because you also respect him.  There is never anything mean or punitive involved in this type of system.  Instead, I take my offer of the reward off the table if he doesn’t comply. 

If my rule is that I ask the dog to Watch Me before I throw a toy and he doesn’t want to, then the game ends by me placing the toy behind my back for a moment.  I wait a moment then bring back out the toy and ask again.  Nine times out of ten there will be compliance. 

 

Extenuating Circumstances in Training 

In my example earlier I noted that not all dogs will train the same, and I can’t expect an older dog with no socialization to train the same way and at the same pacing as a young puppy brought up well.  This is very true, and it represents just one extenuating circumstance that can arise in training.

Ideally all dogs would have excellent and correct temperament and be properly socialized.  Training would be an absolute snap at that point! Real life often gives us dogs that have less than ideal temperament.  Perhaps they are shy, nervous, slightly fearful or perhaps they are sharper in temperament.  Sometimes we have dogs that have been heavily influenced by an environment to such an extent as to affect their learning.

There is a learning curve for these dogs, and we have to take that into account when developing a training plan.  They can be taught using very similar methods, but often more leeway is necessary when adding in distractions or training away from home.  Many dogs under stress may be very well trained at home, but when in a new location that causes stress don’t perform at that same level. 

These special dogs take more time to work with and more patience, but they, too, can be trained very nicely.  At times I have been blessed (which sometimes feels like a curse!) with dogs that require this extra work to make them blossom fully.  It is a rewarding process to train a dog that requires more work and to see what he ultimately becomes.

 

Final Thoughts   

As with all kinds of training, there is always more than one way to do it.  I would suggest that the bulk of training should encourage your dog to learn and should be fun.  It is important for our dogs to listen to us and to give us respect, but we need to also return the favor.
 


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