Do you wish your dog would behave better? Do you lament that you have to put him away before answering your door? Do you dream of strolling down the street with your dog trotting loosely by your side, or sipping your latte at the corner coffee shop while he sits quietly beside you?
These goals are definitely within your reach. Some people think that teaching a dog how to behave requires some sort of magical gift, or that dog training is a highly specialized skill that only trained professionals can do right. While there certainly are some tasks that are more challenging to teach then the average person may be able to master, most people really do have what it takes to teach their own dogs to respond to the basic requests that define a reliable, well-mannered dog.
Dog training just requires us to learn another language. Granted, it’s an interspecies language, but a language nonetheless. And as with any language, clarity is key. Here are some tips that will immediately improve your communication with your dog.
First, follow the Open Paw number one maxim of dog training: When your dog is doing something you do not like, always pause to ask yourself, “If this is wrong, what is right?”
Dogs are both extremely creative and quite likely to have very different ideas from yours about what constitutes acceptable behavior at any given moment. There are countless ways a dog may decide to behave in a situation and most of them will be things you’d rather they not do.
So, rather than simply interrupting your dog’s behavior and telling him “No” time and time again when he makes another doozy of a choice (“Don’t put THAT in your mouth!”), get proactive! Take control! When you don’t like what your dog is doing, tell him exactly what you’d like him to do instead. Tell him clearly and directly what you prefer, don’t make him guess. Because while dogs may not have the same ideas of decorum as you do, with a bit of clarity and incentive they are pretty easy to convince.
For example, if your dog is about to pee indoors, say, “Outside!” If she’s chewing inappropriate articles, say, “Chewtoy!” If she’s barking, say, “Shush!” and if she’s about to jump up, say, “Sit!” It’s really all very easy for the dog to understand once, of course, you have taught her the meaning of the words in calm and controlled circumstances when she is focused on you, prior to attempting them in the heat of the moment. It’s also important to put not just beginning verbal cues on your dog’s various skills, but also end cues. Many people get frustrated when their dogs break position, when really they’ve never clearly defined what exactly the position is. So, when teaching your dog to stay, be sure to tell your dog when the stay is over and she may relax again.
In fact, release commands are essential for reliable stays. Lure/reward training is the quickest way to teach your dog the meaning of the three basic body positions: sit, down, and stand. Randomize the order of the three positions and have your dog remain in each for a variable length of time. For example, sit for 10 seconds, down for 15, stand for five, down for 20, sit for 5, and down for 30. If your dog breaks from the requested position, immediately reinstruct him. For example, if your dog breaks from a sit stay, immediately reinstruct him to “Sit!” and praise him when he does.
Even better, reinstruct your dog when he looks like he is about to break the stay. If your dog looks away or sniffs away he will soon go away. When you notice such signs of distraction, simply restate your Sit! or use your chosen release command and let him follow his nose. This teaches your dog that once requested to sit-stay, for example, he must remain there until instructed to do otherwise. Of course, this means you must be watchful and remember to reinstruct him to sit or to release him.
Here’s another useful tip: When choosing a release command, make sure to choose a word or phrase that is not used in common parlance. For example, “Okay” and “Good dog” are not very good choices. “Free dog,” “Hang loose,” or “Chill” are better options.
We humans have a strong tendency to use language to communicate with each other, so let’s use it wisely when training our dogs. Let’s talk to them clearly and with consistent prompts and expectations so they clearly understand what we would like them to do. Most of the time, they are more than happy to comply.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program, and is in the process of bringing the French sport of cavage (truffle hunting) to the US. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.