Dog Training, The Basics

I have always been fascinated with dog behaviour. I spent a few years in animal shelters as an unpaid teenager, sweeping out, starting from ground level. It established a solid empathy with them which I pursued and nourished all my years since. After a doctorate in animal behaviour in University College Dublin, Ireland, I joined Irish Guide Dogs as Pup Supervisor, whereby you were responsible for the development of 40-50 pups and their families in Dublin. You would school them up to teach their dogs the basics of dog training. I then spent one and a half years as a trainer and Supervisor in Perth Guide Dogs, Australia, walking the dogs in the sunshine being that bit more attractive than battling the lashing rain at home!

It was truly the greatest job ever, guaranteeing 9-5 dog emersion, every day of the week. No other dog can get you that sort of exposure. I truly believe that if you want to get good at something they’re the sort of hours hands-on you need to be doing. Reading and doing online courses is one thing but like learning to play the guitar or drive a car, it’s all about practice.

I learned so much during my time there, and it’s time I passed on some of the lessons to you guys for practising on your own dogs. I suppose one of the first lessons would be the basics to dog training module, which was the the first thing we taught families with new pups, ending with using what we learn to teach a good sit. We’ll then take a quick look at some basic dog behaviours, particularly anxiety in dogs, as it’s so common in pet dogs today, and so easily avoided.

The Two Rules of Dog Training…

There are two very important rules in dog training. Commit these to heart as both are central to every training exercise and problem canine behaviour you tackle from this point forward. They are

Calmness, Consistency

and

You get what you pay attention to.

Both of these make immediate sense to you but it’s the implication that’s the hard thing, as any parent will tell you! Regarding the first, you never raise your voice (and certainly not your hand) to the dog. If you’re losing your cool YOU are doing it wrong, not him. And you must be consistent, meaning not only you must do it the same way each time but everyone in the house needs to be on the same page. For example, it’s hard to reach good leash work when Dad and son lets the dog pull like a reindeer. Confused messages.

You get what you pay attention to is often used to describe to dog owners why they have what they perceive to be negative dog behaviour, such as barking. If you want your dog to bark you respond when he barks. If you want him to rob his socks you interact with him and pull them out of his mouth every time he picks them up, etc. However, I tend to use it in a positive sense more often than not. Let’s say you want your dog to sit. Well, every single time you seem do a sit you should break out in a big smile “ooohhhhh whadda goooood booyyyy, lloooook at that siiitt, goooodd booy”. He’ll get up now excited but you look away when he does. They quickly learn to offer this all the time to get a bit of praise. In the same light, when people come into your house, absolutely nobody can say hello to your dog unless they are sitting. If you do this from the offset you avoid being o

In the same light, when people come into your house, absolutely nobody can say hello to your dog unless they are sitting. If you do this from the offset you avoid being one of those owners who’s dog jumps up on visitors. Instead you get a dog quickly getting into a sit, tail wagging furiously, waiting for a pat, then they run off, mission accomplished.

They Must see Dog Training as a Game, not as Homework…

The learning experience should always be fun for both you and your puppy. Think how quick you do something for your best friend, and how quick you would do something for someone you weren’t so keen on. They must want to do it, that’s the key. It is the difference between a so-so trained dog and a well-trained dog and becomes apparent when a little distraction is thrown in there. If your game is shit, your dog will choose another!

To forge this strong relationship between you both, you will need to consider the following:

  • Always praise your puppy enthusiastically when she responds to your commands. If she thinks it pleases you she will offer the behaviour more (You get what you pay attention to)
  • Be patient and calm
  • Never physically force her into a position
  • Never punish for not obeying, reward her for complying. It’s basic conditioning.
  • Your expectations should be consistent and in line with the puppy’s age and maturity
  • Always stop the top, do two or three repetitions at most then stop and play for a bit, don’t keep doing it until it’s boring and they switch off. Leave them wanting more.

Like young children, young pups learn best through play and games. Your training sessions should thus be conducted in a light-hearted manner, making them as much fun as possible. Sessions should be short and often. This will achieve the best results.

When Teaching Your Pet Remember the Acronym P.E.T…

Posture

Dogs rarely learn the English for anything. Their brains instead are wired for reading body language, and they are absolute experts (just try putting a bed sheet over your head and asking the pup to sit, or simply turn around and ask him, he will look at you inquisitively completely unsure what to do!).

If you are asking a dog to do something, everything about you should read like you’re in charge. You should be standing tall and straight, looking calmly down on your dog. Your eyes should be firm. You are asking him to do something, it’s time to focus.

Bending over towards them will serve to excite her as she reads this as submissive and exciting, as it is dog body language for play, called a play bow. Never bend over and ask your dog to do something, it is mixed signals.

a dog performing a play bow

Environment

Gun dogs are some of the best in the world, doing tricks in some of the busiest and noisiest environments. Here’s one way they achieve that. A hungry retriever is taken into a large room where maximum distraction is occurring, fake pheasants flying around it, noise of horses, people throwing balls, lots of shouting, and then the dog is asked to sit. For the first 20mins the dog cannot hear a thing as he is “blue eyed” with distraction (term used to describe a dog that has become completely transfixed on something else, in hunt mode, and cannot be communicated with). Eventually, the hungry dog turns to look at its master and sees him holding a large lump of fried beef! The hungry dog snaps out of it, focuses on what’s being asked, offers a sit and is instantly rewarded. Over time, the length of time it takes a dog to focus on it’s owner in this situation reduces (often very quickly indeed) and the length of time he must sit and wait for his liver increases. You now have a dog that is trained to listen, focus and obey in the most distractive environment imaginable. Now you may train him on a hunt.

You, the amateur handler, teach the dog in reverse. Initial obedience is taught in a nice quiet kitchen or garden, rarely is anyone around. Let’s face it, this gives you the best chance of success. On a scale of 1-10 of effective obedience, this is about a 1. Your dog can sit in the garden with just you present. But will your dog hold a sit in the park where there’s other dogs and blowing leaves and footballs and kids playing and rainbows and deer jumping over little streams? No, of course he won’t. Thus, manage your expectations. You must Over time you will gradually increase the amount of distraction around you until eventually, the pup can listen to you in busy stations and shopping centres.

Thus, you need to manage your expectations in terms of environment. Over time you should remember to gradually increase the amount of distraction around you, move from the back of the house to the front, practice with other people present, try in a quiet part of the park on lead etc etc until eventually the pup can listen to you off lead in busy stations and shopping centres.

Tone

Once again, your dog doesn’t understand English. This may seem like an obvious enough statement but it is remarkable how often we forget this simple fact and use long wordy sentences to communicate with them! Your tone of voice is everything to your dog. If you want a dog to sit you should ask her in a clear firm tone “Dudley Sit”. When you wish to praise you should do so with a sweet happy tone. If you are a bit cross (as he has his head in the new flowers) you naturally use a deep guttural tone. Pups really understand this one! If you want to excite your pup use quick high pitched staccato noises “Puppy Puppy Puppy!”. If you wish to relax your pup you should speak soft, slow and soothingly (think of lulling a crying child to sleep).

So, if you want to excite your pup towards you need to use quick, high-pitched, staccato noises “Puppy Puppy Puppy!”. If you wish to relax your pup you should speak soft, slow and soothingly (think of lulling a crying child to sleep).

What You Need Before Dog Training…

The most important bit of above is, of course, good treats, they are at the core of canine behaviour modification. Let’s say your dog is afraid of hoovers. Simply take the hoover out and feed him his dinner some metres away. Repeat ten times. Soon he’ll love the sight of the hoover coming out. Then you work on switching it on in a different room while he eats, gradually bringing it closer to him over a great many dinners. It’s the same if he has a bad reaction to other dogs on lead. Almost all dogs can be brought around by a good treat, gently changing their negative association into a positive association.

Now, with these short lessons in mind, you’re ready to teach your dog to sit!

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