Category Archives for "dog training tips"
A lot of my time is spent discussing how dogs should behave. Is barking good or bad or both? “How do I stop the bad barking, but still feel safe? After all, that’s why I got a dog in the first place,” is a frequent conundrum for dog owners. As a trainer, I’ve discovered that the gold standard for having a “trained” dog to have a dog that knows “sit,” “down,” and “stay.” These behaviors are considered “basic,” and most owners stop teaching new things once they’re learned. But…are these the things every dog should know? I think there is so much more. Here’s my list of what every dog should know:
Allowing a dog to own their own life is a difficult balance. Our modern world and pet laws make their world confining and regulated. They can never fully be free, the most loving thing we can give them is some flexibility.
Since skills are still the hallmark of a well behaved dog, here are my top 10 skills every dog should know:
What would you add to this list? Did I miss something every dog should know?
Television has ruined our expectations. Bad guys get caught in the 46 minutes between commercials, houses get torn down and rebuilt, animals get rescued and make a complete recovery, and dogs get amazingly “cured,” all in between selling us insurance, soda and toilet paper. If you’ve ever tried to do any of the above, you know it takes much longer. It’s not just the time to physically do the task, but there’s planning, purchasing, and clean up as well; and that’s if everything goes right! Imagine my surprise when I planned an hour to replace a broken window and wound up with 7 stitches in my thumb. Change is messy and it takes time.
When it comes to our dogs, there isn’t a magic pill to fix behavior problems. A dog trainer can’t take your dog and magically transform it into the perfect specimen of doggyness in 30 minutes, no matter what you see on TV. Part of the problem is we all had different visions of what the perfect dog is. Some people like dogs that jump because it makes them feel wanted, some like dogs that bark because it makes them feel safe, and some like dogs that just hang out and leave them alone. When someone goes to a trainer and says “I just want (fill in the blank) fixed,” that’s really not all they want, it’s just the most pressing issue in the whole owning a dog thing. There are probably more problems to be fixed, but there’s a top one that’s driving them nuts. The first expectation solution is to think big. What else do you want? After the problem is fixed, what else do you want to do with your dog?
There’s usually an underlying issue. Most dog problems are annoying symptoms of an underlying problem. Lunging and barking on leash is usually a symptom of fear or over-stimulation or aggression. Growling at people is usually fear based. Failing to learn to sit or down may actually be a medical issue. A good trainer wants to help with the real problem because once that gets better, so does everything else. Helping with the real problem may mean spending some time teaching the dog to learn to relax, or learn to trust, along with helping the human with their frustration and expectations.
Dealing with an underlying issue. As an example of dealing with an underlying issue, Olivia would attempt to bolt when she heard noises out on walks. The fear response wasn’t just to really loud noises like cars backfiring, but stepping on leaves and acorns, cars passing, and garage doors closing. This made walking frustrating with a dog pulling in all directions. Fixing the underlying issue meant giving Olivia a safe space to relax while she learned that noises aren’t so scary.
To clarify, it took months to get to the level of relaxation seen in the video. It took a solid plan, reading the dog to know when it was time to stop or take a step back or make things easier or try a new challenge, and lots and lots of patience. It also took the long view that a few months spent on dealing with the underlying issue meant a lifetime of success in other areas. Learning other skills will go faster. Trust has been built, so facing scary things together means the dog can look to the human for direction when she’s confused about what to do.
Frustration is the underlying issue. Just like on TV, most people wait until things are really bad before asking for help. We get frustrated, lose patience, and hit the point where we’ll do or try anything to get a problem fixed. Or, we’ve had some success with the problem, but it keeps coming back. Once we hit this point, we stomp and yell, jerk the leash, or decide throwing noisy things will stop the problem. Unfortunately, most of these natural frustration responses make the problems worse. If the real problem is fear, terrifying a dog into better behavior isn’t really going to work. The rational mind knows this, but the frustrated mind just needs the problem to stop. Take a breath and realize the problem probably isn’t as bad, or as often, as you imagine.
Where the real expectations should be. The real expectations shouldn’t be about how your dog behaves or how fast behavior gets better, but in the abilities of a trainer to help you. It may seem really weird to spend quite a lot of time working on relaxing on a mat, but check out Olivia’s progress above. Modern dog training works more with the underlying emotions than the visible behaviors. Along with relaxing, we also work with arousal, particularly in dog sports. It may seem weird to spend time teaching your dog to play with you, but the foundation of play will make learning sports skills go much faster.
We can all learn to relax and play. Getting past the expectation of, “My dog should know what to do and do it because I asked,” is actually the first step toward getting better behavior. At it’s core, modern dog training is about teaching both dogs and humans to play and relax, hopefully together. The ability to play is the highest sign of well-being. For the human, this requires letting go of frustrations and expectations of how our dog should be and see them for who they are. For the dog, this requires letting go of fear and uncertainty, and building trust and relaxation.
Play and relaxation are learned skills. Isn’t it time to let go of our expectations and just learn to relax and play? How do you relax and/ or play with your dog?
This week I started with a new client who has a goal to do Therapy Dog work with her young dog. She’d like to train a lot of calm behaviors so the dog can go into hospitals and schools and not knock things over, which is a wonderful goal! Unfortunately, she’s been berated by a few friends for training her dog. Her friends think “dogs should be dogs,” and to train them turns them into “robots” who just live to do the bidding of their owners. It took me a few days to really ponder this line of thinking. This is by no means a full list of my thoughts, but is a starting point for discussion. How much is too much training, and is there such a thing?
A lot of natural doggy behavior doesn’t mesh with our current modes of living. When dogs first started hanging out with humans there were camp fires and bows and arrows and hunting and things. Dogs now live in our homes, sometimes being left alone for hours at a time, and there is very little hunting or scavenging involved in their daily activities. In fact, hunting and scavenging, such as counter surfing, getting in the trash, and stealing food, is one of the things humans usually like to curb. Are we to allow dogs to just help themselves to any food? What if the food may harm them? Most of us would agree that having good household manners is an area that should be trained for the health and safety of both dogs and humans. If nothing else, at least potty training solves a very big health hazard.
Consistent rules lessens stress. This goes for both ends of the leash. Humans need to learn about being consistent with their dogs, and dogs need to learn to have a certain amount of conditional freedom. Having to endure inconsistent rules is frustrating and stressful. Imagine traffic laws changed every day. On Tuesdays green means go, but on Wednesdays yellow means go. Stop signs are applicable on weekends, and left hand turn lanes are only legal on weekdays. Head lights are required on Mondays and Fridays all day, and blinker signals are illegal on the freeway. I guarantee you, road rage would skyrocket. Teaching dogs that following the rules leads to fun rewards is one thing, but being consistent about the rules is another. Can they bark at the mailman without getting yelled at on weekdays when you’re not home, but get yelled at and “corrected” on weekends when you are home? What do dogs learn from that kind of inconsistency? Their human being home means they get in trouble. No wonder some dogs go a little bonkers.
Well trained dogs get to go places. Like my new client whose dog loves meeting people, her trained dog will get to go to hospitals and schools and meet adults and kids and get pets and treats and attention for something she likes to do already. My dogs have been on a wine tasting tour in Paso Robles, camped at the Grand Canyon, toured Monument Valley on the tram, run around on a beach, and gone boating in Colorado, as well as going to street fairs, local parks and just walking down the street. Rude dogs stay home. How much training is needed to go galavanting around the country? Dogs need to be calm, walk nicely, be able to sit and stay, not chew on things like hotel room linens, be able ignore things that look like fun like dead squirrels, not bark at weird sounds in campgrounds, and settle nicely in the bottom of a moving boat.
That’s hardly a “robot” dog scenario.
People’s previous experience with trained dogs includes dogs trained with a lot of “corrections.” I can totally understand a distaste for trained dogs when what you see is a human forcing, yanking, popping, and yelling at a dog for failing to comply. That kind of training is still around, but scientific studies have proven it’s not effective, adds stress, and can lead to a “shut down” dog, (a dog that stays still because they’re afraid to move in case they’re “corrected.”) Positive training integrates play, rewards highly for dogs choosing the correct behavior, gives dogs control over their environment, and creates a communication of give and take between dog and human. “If you are calm, we will go play,” means the human gets what they want, (calm,) and the dog gets what they want, (play,) so it’s a win-win. A human-dog team working and communicating well to get through life peacefully and with fun is a beautiful thing to see.
What about Competitive Obedience, Agility, Schutzhund and other dog sports? Competition can be fun for both the dog and the human. If nothing else, deciding to compete with dogs creates a clear list of defined training goals. Instead of being stuck at “sit” and “stay,” there is jumping, retrieving, and scent discrimination along with the fancy heeling. Using competition as a reason to train gives the human a road map for building better skills, creating more complex skills, and working with distractions, all of which are good things. That said, if a dog really dislikes one sport, instead of trying to force the issue, it would be better to move to another. Due to the intensity of competitive training, sports dogs tend to get more down time. Remembering a lot of different cues and their associated behaviors is hard work, so dogs relax more and usually don’t have the energy to be reactive to novel environmental movements and sounds.
In the end, it really bothers me that people would berate responsible dog owners for training their dogs. The number one killer of dogs in the United States is having a behavior problem. That’s right, 96% of dogs in shelters haven’t had any training, and of those, 40% have at least one “perceived” behavior problem. With an estimated euthanasia rate of 3.7 million dogs annually, that’s about 1.5 million dogs dying every year due to behavioral issues. While the question at the head is, “Is it unfair to train your dog,” isn’t the real question, “Is it fair not to train your dog?”
Do dogs need free reign to be dogs? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.
I received an email over the weekend asking if I teach “Basic Obedience” classes. In recent years, “basic” has come to slant more toward learned skills instead of learned behaviors. Traditionally, “Sit,” “Stay,” “Down” and “Heel,” were taught as first behaviors, and so became known as “Basic Obedience,” however, skills like “Settle on a Mat,” and “Watch me,” are much more useful in a variety of environments than the preprogrammed behaviors.
The current surge of positive reinforcement training concentrates on educating dogs to make correct choices instead having to wait for cues or commands from their human. Teaching this way also creates “environmental cues,” such as a knock at the front door means, “Go to your mat,” or the presence of food in the kitchen means, “Down,” which stops counter surfing. These are still the same behaviors, just in a different wrapping. The less visible behaviors include impulse control, the ability to self calm, and learning that being next to their human is the best place in the world.
What are my 5 Basic skills? For me, impulse control and self calming are high priorities. Here’s my list:
Of these, only “Recall / Come” is taught in a traditional “Basic” class. A lot of the behaviors on my list require some relationship building and trust. There is a fine balance between teaching a dog to think on their own and the dog learning when to turn to the human for direction, but this should be one of the first skills.
To quote Dr. Susan Friedman, psychology professor at Utah State:
Trust: What does it look like?
A useful way to operationalize trust is a level of certainty that interaction will result
in good outcomes and so interaction increases. Trusting animals use their behavior
to confidently approach, rather than escape, opportunities to interact with people.
They not only accept invitations to interact with their trainers, trusting animals
create interaction opportunities for their trainers as well.
The flip side would be rewritten as, “Trusting people use their behavior to confidently approach, rather than escape, opportunities to interact with dogs. They not only accept invitations to interact with their animals, trusting humans create interaction opportunities for their dogs as well.”
Dogs know “Safe” and “Unsafe.” The primary decision a dog owner has to make when they pursue “basic obedience” for their dog is which category they want to be in. After that, the skills needed to instruct the dog for proper behavior in various environments and under numerous conditions means imagining the dog behaving properly and creating a training plan. After creating the plan, it’s all about being consistent, communicating effectively, and building good habits.
Would you like your dog to down in the kitchen while you prepare food? Where in the kitchen? Does your dog need a little help finding that spot? Maybe a mat would help clarify where you’d like them to be. Can you work on this every time you’re in the kitchen? Maybe 3 or 4 times a day? Awesome! Put a little post-it note on the wall to remind you to take 30 seconds and reward the dog for going to the mat. Soon it will become a habit for both of you.
“Basic Obedience,” is really for both ends of the leash. Creating positive habits leads to less frustration from human expectations as well as canine confusion. Dog owners need tools to manage and teach, dogs need a framework to learn, communicate and explore. Within those confines, it doesn’t really matter if you’re teaching “Sit” or “Get me a tissue.” It’s the communication that happens during training that is the true basic skill.
So, what do you consider the 5 Basic Behaviors?