So, you just picked up your new puppy from a breeder – or, maybe you saw an adorable shelter dog that needed to be rescued (even though you already have two dogs in the house, but what’s one more, right?). Regardless of where your new friend came from, teaching him or her the basics of how to be a good canine citizen through obedience training is our obligation, and giving them something to learn is one way to keep your canine companion mentally satisfied!
The first and most important aspect of dog training is to build a relationship with your dog. Respect, trust and understanding are the foundations of a good dog-handler relationship, and whether your goal with your dog is to be able to brag to your friends about how well-behaved he is, or maybe you want to pursue a more competitive path of training, all good training starts with a mutual understanding. Dogs are social animals, and allowing them to be a part of your daily life even if you are just doing everyday tasks, allows them to learn to be your companion. Just being with you is rewarding to them!
Training Using Motivation
One of the biggest components in positive reinforcement training (meaning increasing the likelihood of a behaviour by creating a positive association with it) is using a high motivator for your training. Before you begin teaching your dog anything, find out what they like! Are they motivated by treats, toys or simply praise from you? Once you have determined what makes your dog want to work, you can use that motivator to your advantage in training. A strong interest in food is the easiest motivator to work with, as you can use high value rewards (like chicken or hot dog pieces) to engage your dog’s learning by using a technique called “luring.” This training method teaches your dog to perform a behaviour or movement by having them follow a treat or a toy. For example, an easy way to teach a food-motivated dog to “sit” is to hold a treat in front of their nose and bring it upwards and backwards until their rear end is planted in a sitting position. Eventually, once your dog is comfortable sitting consistently with the lure, you can begin to fade out the lure, so that the behaviour will be performed without a hand gesture or a treat lure, but simply with your voice command.
Marking & Rewarding
Using a marker to tell your dog that the action they performed was correct is the next step in your training. A marker is a verbal cue that tells the dog that they did something right, and that a reward will be presented to them (generally in the form of a treat or a toy). Most people use a word, like “yes” to mark a correct behaviour, but some people prefer to use a training tool known as a clicker. Dogs learn based on a method of learning called “operant conditioning,” where the behaviours they elicit are based on a consequence. The clicker training method works on a “click-treat” system, where every time the dog performs a behaviour correctly and hears the clicking noise, a treat is presented to them as a reward. Thus, the dog learns the three step process of: 1. I perform a behaviour, 2. I hear the marker, and 3. I receive a reward. This method can be used anywhere from training basic obedience to advanced tricks!
Increasing Duration & Reward Schedules
Without getting in to too much confusing detail, teaching a dog to perform a “stay” behaviour can be taught by using what’s called a reward schedule. This means that the dog will be rewarded (with a toy or treat) based on the duration of time spent performing that behaviour. For example, in the beginning of training your “stay” command, you will reward for a particular amount of seconds that dog stays in the sit, down or stay (for explanation purposes, let’s say 3 seconds). Once you have released your dog, and reset back into the stay behaviour, you will reward again after the three seconds is up, provided the dog has completed that behaviour correctly. Once your dog is comfortable sitting for three seconds, you can begin to increase the duration. Over time, you can use a variable rewards schedule to increase the duration of the stay, so rewarding after three, five, seven and ten seconds, and then going back to rewarding at five or three second intervals. What this does is it allows the dog to perform that behaviour for as long as necessary in anticipation of the reward, without knowing exactly when the reward will be presented. Eventually, your dog will be able to perform more behaviours for a longer amount of time, provided a reward is present at some point during the obedience session. This method is great for teaching behaviours like loose leash walking, sit-stays, down-stays and tricks.
Leash manners are one of the most important social behaviours to have with your dog. While some dogs walk well on a leash naturally, others may need a bit more guidance as they may be inclined to pull towards something that excites them, or pull forwards in general to try and get to where they are going more quickly. The most important tip I can give is do not let your dog reach their destination by pulling! Whether your dog pulls on the leash to get towards a person or a dog, allowing them to reach the object or person they want by pulling reinforces the behaviour. In this sense, the dog learns that by pulling, he or she reaches his destination more quickly. The common mistakes people make are not teaching their dog to walk on a loose lead while using the incorrect training tools to control their dogs.
While back-leading harnesses and flat collars (flat meaning the collar is either a nylon or another fabric material all the way around, secured with a snap or buckle) are great for securing dogs that have leash manners, they create what is called an opposition reflex for dogs that pull. An opposition reflex for a dog is it’s natural reaction to resist pressure by pulling against a pull. A collar or a harness that inhibits this behaviour allows them to pull more. So, even if you are an extremely strong person that can hold your dog back on a harness or a collar, you are actually building frustration and making that dog want to pull even more.
Instead of simply restraining your dog with tension on your leash, consider teaching your dog to heel by rewarding when your dog gives you focus in the correct position at your side, or hangs back to check on you, and then releasing them with a verbal command that allows them to sniff around or go to the washroom. If you’ve got a stronger or more stubborn dog, you might want to consider using a different tool that makes pulling uncomfortable. If you have a dog that yields well to leash pressure, using a slip lead high up on the neck behind the ears can be helpful, or alternatively, using a martingale collar (a fabric collar that has a slip chain that tightens at both ends when the collar is taut). Using a combination of leash pressure and simple guidance training, you can have a dog that walks well on a leash with no issues.
There are many tools sold in pet stores that can help teach your dog leash manners, and different tools work differently for each dog. Don’t be afraid to experiment using tools such as haltis, front-leading harnesses, or martingale collars. For more advanced training, there are pinch/slip chain collars, Starmark collars and e-collars. All training tools can be efficient when used properly. For more information on how to use these tools, please do your research on how to use them correctly, and contact a certified dog trainer directly.
Generalizing Your Training
While you may train your dog’s obedience at home or at a training facility, those behaviours may become conditioned to the environment. You might ask yourself, “Why does my dog sit perfectly at home in my living room where I normally train him, but not at the pet store when I take him there?” This is a result of not generalizing your training. Your dog will not be comfortable performing obedience behaviours in public unless you teach him to. There are many distractions that can throw your dog’s training off, such as new smells or people and dogs walking by, and unless he is conditioned to work under those distractions by generalization, he cannot be expected to do so. Always make sure to train everywhere!
Socialization is key! Introduce your dog to new environments slowly, but as frequently as your dog will allow (especially with puppies!), and always try your best to make each outing a positive experience. The first couple of weeks with a new puppy is the most critical stage – make sure to allow for as many positive introductions with people and friendly dogs as possible, as this will set a good foundation for how the puppy will react as he or she matures. Preventing a bad behaviour from forming by exposing your dog to as many new people, sights and sounds as possible is much easier than having to correct an issue later on.
Finding a Trainer
Being able to ask someone with extensive knowledge about dogs any questions you have about your own canine training is extremely important, particularly if you are dealing with a behaviour that may need professional guidance (aggression, dog reactivity, resource guarding) or if you are simply looking to further your dog training knowledge.
The OSPCA (Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) made a great post about how to find a good dog trainer and what to look for: http://ontariospca.ca/how-to-choose-a-dog-trainer.html
Article by: Tristienne Chansing