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Training Your Dog: Misconceptions, Truths, and Realities

Things aren’t always as they seem! We interpret our dog’s actions from a human point of view and they interpret ours from a canine point of view. While they can only ever react to us from their doggy viewpoint, we are capable of understanding why they do what they do and therefore can treat them accordingly. If you can learn and accept that your dog acts like a dog because he is a dog, you’ll have a much better idea of how to communicate with and motivate him.

You’ll see that the relationship with your best friend need not be contentious and is certainly not a struggle for dominance. This understanding will make training with him infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding to you both.

Misconception: Dogs want to please us.
Truth: Dogs do what works for them. If they learn that “sit” earns them a morsel of food, then they quickly sit, particularly if they are hungry. If they figure out that they can do something that puts you in a good mood, then they will surely get pets, praise, and cookies!
Reality:  If you want your dog to do what you want, you must find what motivates him to do it. Your dog needs a reason that makes sense to him.

Misconception: My dog poops on the floor (digs up the yard, rips up the couch, barks, chews my shoes, etc.) when he is mad at me!
Truth: Dogs do these things out of boredom or anxiety. They are not human, and thus are incapable of plotting revenge.
Reality: If you want to reduce bad habits, you must not let them develop. Give your dog something else to do instead—a stuffed Kong, a bully stick, a game of fetch. If he is anxious, resolve his anxiety with the help of a professional canine behavior specialist.

Misconception: My dog knows he did wrong. I can tell because he looks guilty!
Truth: Your dog only knows that you sound or look threatening and/or did in the same circumstances on a previous occasion.
Reality: Your dog is exhibiting normal canine “submissive” signals to ward off a confrontation with you, thus saving him from perceived danger.

Misconception: My dog deliberately ignores me.
Truth: Your dog simply finds something else more interesting. Unlike us, the floor always pays off with lovely smells, crumbs, and surprises; the park always pays off with squirrels, bikes, dogs, worms…. You get the idea!
Reality: You must find something that will make you more exciting and interesting to your dog when these other things are present. Try a much better food reward – something he never normally gets, like your leftover tri-trip or some cut-up hot dogs. If he loves toys, a new squeaky toy might grab his attention. Other things he might find interesting are a dried duck foot, a bully stick, or a marrow bone.

Misconception: I’m supposed to hold my dog down on his back and stare in his eyes until he submits to show him I am the alpha in the household.
Truth: This is bad advice based on a seriously flawed study done on wolves in the 1940s. This will only teach your dog to be afraid of you and perhaps defend himself from you, which is potentially dangerous and definitely damaging to your relationship.
Reality: True leaders don’t need to use force. You are the natural “alpha” because you are dominant over everything your dog wants – food, toys, attention, water, walks, a place to sleep. You control all these things and your dog knows it.

Misconception: My dog is stubborn.
Truth: Your dog is merely choosing what she prefers to do.
Reality: Your dog is not stubborn. You just haven’t yet found what will convince your dog to do what you want her to do.

Misconception: If I use food, my dog will always expect food.
Truth: Your dog is always choosing between two things: good for him or bad for him. Once your dog becomes reliable in a behavior, you may not need to use food as often because his responses become automatic. But certainly you’ll want to continue to use food often enough to preserve his reliable response to your requests.
Reality: If you get a paycheck for doing what your boss expects, won’t you always expect a paycheck?

Misconception: My dog is dumb (hard to train, stupid, bored, doesn’t like to do what I want him to do, etc.)….
Truth: Your dog doesn’t understand what you want or isn’t motivated to change.
Reality: You haven’t yet communicated to your dog in a way he understands what it is you want him to do.

Bottom line? You need to develop clear communication with your dog and provide consistent feedback about his actions in order to create a happy and harmonious life together. You also need to find what motivates your dog to do what you want. When you do, you’ll start experiencing great success in your training sessions.

Ultimately, your dog’s success or failure is up to you!

Nancy Weller, CPDT-KA, CTC, is the founder/owner of Pawsitively Fabulous! LLC, a Silicon Valley company providing a variety of dog training services, including private training, pre-puppy counseling, puppy jump starts, group classes, and puppy board and train. More info at PawsitivelyFabulous.com.

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