Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Easiest Way to Train Your Dog

I hear this a lot.  "What is the best way, or what way do you recommend to train your dog?" I hear this a lot because I train dogs for a living, well dog, and their owners.  What people really seem to be asking is, "what is the fastest and easiest way I can get my dog to do what I want."  The honest truth is there is no "fast track" to training.  That's like expecting your child to be able to be doing calculus by the time they are done with Kindergarten.  Every once in a while you might just find a child who can, so I am not saying it's impossible...just not what to expect.

There are, however, ways that are easier and better than others.  There's a lot of information out there about dogs, so much so that I am not surprised at the amount of confusion, and disagreement that occurs.  Back when I attended my first dog training class, the rage and the "best" method of the day was the choke chain, which has now escalated into the pinch collar.  I hated it, but I thought I was doing the best thing for me and my dog.  I was only thirteen or fourteen.  If I had only known then what I know now.
This was Barney.  He was a sweet, old dog who was subjected to all kinds of bad behavior on the part of his unknowing owners.  He put up with so much from us, and we often times found that we were at our wits end with him.  We loved this dog, we all did, but because of our lack of understanding there was a lot both sides had to "put up with."

Fast forward almost 20 years to now.....
This is Miss Roxy.  Once again I can say even with all my past experience I am still constantly learning.  However because of what I do know she is quite the spoiled dog.  She was rescued at five  months of age and I had every intention of training her and then rehoming her. However she had more issues than most dogs, and in the end I didn't want to see her end up in a shelter because someone else didn't understand her or understand her issues.

Now one thing I would like to stress, your dog is smart.  I have not yet met a dog who wasn't much smarter than their owners give them credit for.  For most of you (unless your dog is a working dog) your dog has one job, to learn as much about you as possible, than use that information to get what they want.  A belly rub, food, a ball thrown for them...and so on.
Your dog spends as much of it's time as possible watching you, so they can understand you.  Now don't forget we don't really speak dog very well yet, and dogs really don't speak human.  So for as smart as we all are there are bound to be miscommunications.

First things first.  What do you want a dog for?  What do you want your dog to do?  Make sure you can clearly answer those two questions.  If you can't then don't get upset with the dog because they can't read your mind and interpret it for you.  

Let me give you an example.  For most people the "Sit" command is one of the very first things taught.  Now why is that?  We all want our dogs to sit next to us, calmly.  So we have a clear idea of what we want them to do.  Normally that is one of the easiest things to teach a dog to do on command.  Firstly because we know exactly what we want the dog to do, and secondly it is something the dog does naturally all the time.  You can achieve this many different ways, I simply hold a strong smelling treat in my fingers and slant my hand from the dog's head, down towards it's rump till the dog is in the "Sit" position, then I click and the dog gets his treat.

Now what about teaching your dog how to wipe his paws on the mat before coming in the house?  Sounds like a great idea doesn't it.  Only thing is how do you teach your dog to do something like that?  That is a question I was faced with a couple of years ago.  I thought, well that seems to be something I see a lot of other dog trainers have their dogs do, so it should be fairly simple.  All I could see was the end result.  I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know how to get it.  The thing is my dog did scratch things, just not what I wanted.  In order to teach your dog anything, you need to have a plan.  Steps to teach your dog. Let me mention to, that the more you work with your dog (punishment is not working with him) the more your dog will "get it" and will be easier to train, or teach.

Remember that we don't fully speak one another's language.  How do you communicate complex ideas with someone who does not share your language?  How would  you explain to someone from a small African village that in order to make the house you live in warm or cold, you move a knob on the wall, or push a button?  Think of a dog as someone from that little African village.  You don't speak the same language, and your context for explaining things are not going to be the same.

I wanted my dog to do something completely foreign to it.  Wipe her paws before coming in the house.  To a dog it makes no sense.  First things first remember.  Come up with a clear plan. 

 Step one: (remember I use the clicker training method)
Click & treat for any scrapping motion my dog makes with her feet, anything that is close to the wiping  motion I want. (this is called capturing, it's finding something your dog is already doing and rewarding it so she wants to do it again) Say she likes to scratch at her water bowl on warm summer days, or maybe when she is trying to dig a hole. 

Step two: Add a verbal cue (or word) to the action so that I can ask for it and she will know what I mean. 

Step three: Ask for it in other places.  Now instead of only clicking and rewarding her for scratching in her bowl, now ask for it and reward it if she will do it on the mat you have in front of your door.  Be patient with this step, it's one thing to understand a cue in one context, it's not always the same thing when you try to move it.  (Think of the Karate Kid and Wax on Wax off)

Step four: Always ask for the paw wipe when she comes in to make it a new habit.  (and remember it takes us thirty days to make a habit, give your dog the same chance)

Ok so now you understand how to teach your dog new behavior, but what about stopping "bad" behavior such as jumping up on you or your guests?  First thing here to do is to understand why your dog is doing what he is doing.  This is where, knowing why you want a dog, comes in handy.  You don't get a bird if you don't like bird songs, or feathers.  You don't get a horse if you don't like to ride, so it only makes sense to understand what it is about a dog that makes you want one.  Next to understanding that is understanding what a dog is, and why it does what it does.  One reason a dog jumps up on people is to lick their faces.  Dogs are hard wired to do this, it is instinct. In their language it means they are happy to see you home, it can also mean they would like food, or time to play.  Just because it is instinctive for them to do this does not mean you can not teach them a different way of saying the same thing.  By ignoring your dog's bad behavior, or leaving when jumping starts that will send the message that you do not like it and all fun time will stop if that happens.  
You also need to then reinforce what you do want.  If you can get your dog to sit for you make sure you praise, pet, and or treat when he does this.  If you are consistent about this you will soon find that your dog is no longer jumping up to get your attention, but sitting nicely by your feet.  Don't forget to praise and reward (either with food or play time) behavior you want repeated.  
One of our biggest mistakes we make when trying to teach our dog good behavior is forgetting to reward the good things our dogs are doing.  If your dog does not jump on you, or knock over the toddler in the yard, make sure you let him know that that is the correct way of going about greeting people.  They take their cues from us, but sometimes there are miscommunications. They may take your waving your arms as a way of saying, "Yay, I'm glad to see you too!"  Instead of your meaning "No, get off my best pants!"  The earliest you can teach these things the better behaved your dog will be.  Don't want your dog to bite your hand when you are playing?  Make sure you have a tug toy that he can bite an offer than when he goes for your fingers.

So in a nutshell, the fastest, and easiest way to train your dog is being aware of what your dog is doing, redirect behavior that you don't want, and praise the behavior you do want.  Sounds easy?  Don't be fooled, it takes time, patience, and more perseverance.  But don't fret, as I said before, the more you work with your dog the better you will both understand each other, and the easier it becomes. It will be worth it in the long run. Happy Training! 


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