"I just got a new dog--what's the best way to train him?"


Anyone who spends a lot of time with dogs has their own opinion on this. There's no ONE right way to create a good companion...however, some ways are faster, easier, or more appealing than others. Not every method works on every dog. While dogs themselves haven't changed in the last 50 or 100 years, we humans have changed how we prefer to view and work with them. We've also discovered a lot of new tools and methods that we didn't have before. The most effective path will be a mix of the best of both old and new techniques, but with so many methods out here, what to choose?

Let me offer you a brief overview of canine psychology--then YOU decide what methods are likely to work best for YOUR dog (and your experience level, and your personality). There are multiple layers to the human-canine relationship, and a good dog-raising plan will consider them all.

Dogs, like the wolves they came from, are social predators. This means they are wired to live in a group. How well each individual dog gets along with other dogs depends on both genetics and upbringing, as some breeds have been modified to be far less wolflike, and more dysfunctional with their own kind. They ignore signs of submission, and have lost the bite inhibition of their primitive ancestors. However, dogs have also co-evolved alongside humans, and learned some of OUR communication along the way! Typically, the dogs who are poor with their own kind are still able to fill their social needs through us. Social skills exist along a spectrum, but all dogs have some need for companionship, leadership, and teamwork.

Dog behaviours don't happen in a vaccum--your dog has to put together a "big picture" view of you & your relationship. Are you safe? Confident? Proactive? Rewarding? Fun? Do you do things together that build rapport, such as long walks, games, the sharing of food, and basic training where he earns rewards for being responsive to your actions? Solid dog training is based on positive perks for good behaviour, and negative consequences for deliberate disobedience....as well as controlling the environment to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behaviours. By setting him up to succeed, and never giving commands you can't/don't enforce, you are developing a structure in which the dog knows what's expected of him. As the one who provides food, security, and affection, you earn the right to be respected and followed. (A newly adopted adult dog may need some time to build that connection!)

Positive reinforcement is THE way to teach new behaviours, hands-down. You don't necessarily need to use a clicker; using a marker word (we use "Yes!") works just fine. Also, look into Kayce Cover's bridge-and-target method! :-) The book Don't Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, is a great introduction to positive reinforcement. Teaching commands is about more than just having a dog who knows cute tricks. It's what builds the habit of your dog looking to YOU for guidance, instead of doing whatever crosses his mind.

The flip side to rewarding good behaviours, of course, is punishing "bad" behaviours. However, you will make progress much faster if you teach what you DO want, rather than waiting for what you don't and then correcting him for it. Always, always, when your dog is doing something you don't like, hear in your head the dog asking you, "What DO you want me to do?" and ask for that behaviour instead. If possible, make it a behaviour that's incompatible with the thing he's doing wrong. Only correct him if you're quite certain that he knows what you want /don't want and is deliberately doing it anyway, or if it's a life or death situation (eating rancid roadkill after you've said No, or trying to kill your cat. Only the big stuff. Seriously, it's not worth nagging your dog over every minor infraction--save your ammo for the stuff that really matters).

Will corrections/aversives damage your relationship with your dog? No...not if they are:
-Fair.
-Predictable.
-Part of a stable relationship where the dog also has fun and strong social bonds with you.

For some pointers on using punishment correctly, look over here.

Leadership is an extremely important part of the human-dog relationship. It addresses critical concerns that your dog has:
-Who will protect me?
-What should I do?
-Why should I listen to YOU?

Leadership is not something that's done 'instead of' other styles of training. It's not a cure-all, or even a training method--it's just one more layer in the relationship, along with reinforcement, bonding, and environment. Leaders initiate, followers react. A true leader doesn't have to yell, nag, or bully; simply knowing what needs to be done, calmly taking action, and expecting the dog to respond will normally "travel down the leash" and convince your dog.
Of course, the reason you are in charge of your dog (and not the other way around) is obvious; dogs have no idea how to navigate this complex, human-created world. Their instinctive answer to anything threatening is usually either "run away!" or "bite it!" They need humans to show them better options. Just as a toddler may throw fits over wanting Twinkies for breakfast or refusing to take a bath, your dog may not always know what's best for him. Having a firm, consistent leader that he can trust and follow unconditionally does wonders for a dog's state of mind. These days, with many training schools no longer teaching this critical component, there's been a huge increase in the number of insecure dogs out there. They're afraid of people, they're afraid of dogs, and they're afraid of anything new. These poor dogs feel obligated to respond to all of these imagined threats in their environment, because their human hasn't convinced them "I've got this, no need for you to take action". The modern fix for these dogs is to put them on mind-altering drugs...but let me ask you, do you really think Nature designed dogs with a prozac deficiency? These dogs have basic social needs that are NOT being met.

Some dogs are NOT afraid. They're perfectly willing to take the reins--at your expense: ignoring commands, aggressively guarding food and toys, growling people off the bed or couch, and other classic, textbook signs of dominance confusion. They're still under a lot of stress...but even more distressingly, they are at risk for being "put to sleep" when the owners are severely bitten, or can no longer handle the dog. Again, this is becoming more and more prevalent as our culture transitions into treating dogs as small furry humans, instead of as Canis lupus.

Dogs are very physical animals. From infancy, other dogs will physically restrain and redirect them, until they are old enough to develop some self control. (Even as adults, they may be mounted, pinned, or have their scruff shaken or their muzzle grabbed by other dogs.) Does this sound like what we do with human children? No? That's because dogs are not humans. It sounds silly to say it like that, but I think a lot of folks don't realise they are dealing with a *whole 'nother species*. They don't think like you, they don't act like you, and they don't have the same desires as you. If you want to learn to think like a dog, you need to stop thinking like a human.
That said, there is seldom reason to be physical with a dog, other than petting and playing. However, they do need friendly physical contact, and from the very start they should be accustomed to being restrained, taken by the collar, picked up, and handled all over, so they can be examined and medically treated without issue. The day a dog is sick or hurt is NOT the time for him to discover what it feels like to be carried around! You also don't want him to redirect his frustration on a human if he is held back from chasing a cat or posturing with another dog.

Dogs do not understand nor respect "democracy"; like any social animal, they have a hierarchy. Yes, it's flexible. NO, it has nothing to do with violence. It's psychologically and socially based. Yes, a dog knows that you are not a dog. However, your dog would love for you to meet him partway. (If you had a new friend who only spoke French, would you demand that he learn English, because hey, you aren't a Frenchman, and it's dumb/insulting/pointless for you to pretend that you are, by learning to speak French? ;-o Of course not. A dog understands what leaning over him, eye contact, confident energy and posture, claiming space, and other behaviours mean in dog language, whether you are a dog or not.)

The concept of social dominance has become so hideously misunderstood, by so many people, that some folks have stopped talking about it entirely...but it's SO important, that I am going to talk about it anyway. ;-) "Dominance" is about social structure, not violence. I think an easy analogy for non-technical folks would be to compare it to having a boss at work. Your boss doesn't come in and whoop your @$$ every morning so that you will do your job. Ideally, he motivates you far more than he chastises you, and gives you 3 compliments for every "correction" ;) and you probably have a friendly relationship with him. However, when something needs done, and he brings it to your desk, you do it...because he is higher in the organizational hierarchy and if you don't do it, there will be consequences--namely, the loss of something you want, like a paycheck. A dog who understands you are "the boss" because you've already earned his respect and won his mind, doesn't need to find more reasons to do as you ask. This solves a lot of behaviour problems before they even start. It's not really a "training thing"...your boss doesn't use his status to help you learn a new task. However, since he's the one who directed you to the task, it is assumed that you will do it. It would be very stressful for you if people were always expecting you to do your boss's job - you don't know how to navigate his world. It would be very stressful for your boss, if every time he came to you with a task, he had to beg and bribe you to do your job. The boss takes care of the higher-ups, you do the job *YOU* have been trained to do, and you get to feel pride in your work and receive a paycheck, and everybody's happy. I'd also like to offer a link, which contains more detailed info on the topic, as well as additional links to further reading. http://wolfdogproject.com/dom2

A tired dog is a good dog. Excessive energy just adds fuel to any behaviour-problem fire. You'll want to make sure your dog gets enough stimulation, both physically and mentally. That makes for a happy animal. Kind of a fun link on environmental enrichment, HERE - ** Warning, very photo-heavy. Might take a minute to load! **

Do you understand canine body language? Understanding what your individual dog was bred to do, and how dogs communicate in general, is essential for a safe, successful relationship with most dogs. (If you haven't chosen your dog yet, choose carefully--picking a dog whose traits are close to what you want is FAR easier than getting one who isn't a good lifestyle match!)

Some other things I suggest that newer dog owners (or people with their first difficult dog!) look into:

Claiming space: https://leadyourdog.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/claiming/
http://www.seizetheleash.net/files/claimit.cfm

No Free Lunch (or, Nothing in Life is Free, or Learn to Earn, or Leading the Dance, or Protocol for Deference, etc)--essential for pushy, fearful, primitive, and independent dogs. http://www.chowwelfare.com/cciw/alpha.htm
http://www.pbrc.net/training_nfl.html

The Sit may be the first behaviour you teach, and one of the most useful. You also need this for No Free Lunch. Look here for a great, easy method to teach it: http://www.clickandtreat.com/cues.htm

Indirect Access: an important lesson for independent or unresponsive dogs. http://web.archive.org/web/20031008132158/http://www.dogscouts.org/attention.shtml

Teaching self-control: https://web.archive.org/web/20150228180104/http://www.seizetheleash.net/files/selfcontrol.cfm
http://www.wolfdogproject.com/selfcontrol.htm
http://dogscouts.org/base/tonto-site/uploads/2014/10/2150_Self_Control_and_IA_are_the_keys.pdf

The Structured Walk: http://www.canineprofessionals.com/structured-walk (I recommend that only part of a dog's walk is structured--part should be 'free play'.)

A few more good training reads: http://web.archive.org/web/20060106095143/http://sdhumane.org/petownerhelp/anydog.cfm (includes "Go To Place")

http://happydogsfollow.com/leading-the-memo-restoring-peace/

http://web.archive.org/web/20060710161328/http://www.smartdogs.chillizone.net/dogs_hard_train.asp

A great article from Terrierman about the perks and limitations of operant conditioning.

A couple of common specific training issues:
"My dog won't stop pulling and I can barely walk him!" -Sprenger (prong) collar. It's a band-aid and your eventual goal is to teach him to Focus on you and to avoid putting pressure on the leash...but in the meantime, if you are avoiding his walks or can't control him, the prong is the most effective (immediate "power steering") and least cruel tool, imo. Headcollars work, but they are so aversive and have such a negative and stressful effect on the dog that I can't recommend them. Used correctly, the Sprenger collar is safe, painless, and simple...and far less unpleasant for the dog.

"He barks, lunges, and freaks out when we see another dog/a stranger/kids on skateboards/etc." -Leash reactivity is normally fear-based. Check into Constructional Aggression Training, Grisha Stewart's BAT, and "Look at That". Another method is to step in between your dog and the "threat", enforce a behaviour such as Sit and/or Look At Me, and reward with the BEST treats you've got. Bacon, cheese, freeze-dried liver...not dry dog cookies. You're teaching the dog an alternate thing to do in the face of the scary thing. You also want to work on Leadership/No Free Lunch above, which reinforces the dog's confidence in you and the fact that "doing something about" the scary thing is YOUR job, not his.

"Help! My puppy won't stop biting, and it hurts!" -With very young pups: yelp, stop playing or interacting, let your chewtoy of a hand go limp, and redirect on to a toy. For older pups who are very persistent ("this has gone on far too long, and it needs to stop NOW"), the Muzzle Grab method works very quickly. Do it exactly as they recommend.

"My dog keeps doing X." -Why are you letting her? If she keeps getting into the trash, taking food off the table, running away when you call her, and so on, she has too much freedom. Crate train, and control the environment so the "bad" behaviour is not possible. Dogs should EARN their freedoms as they become ready for them.

"Help, he bit me!(over food, toys, etc)" -Resource guarding requires a two-pronged approach. Simultaneously, you want to reduce his natural desire to guard resources, and restore your unbalanced relationship so he can relax and just be a dog.

"My dog growls and snaps at me when he's on the couch/bed." -You have a relationship problem. This link explains a lot of what's going on, and a "boot camp" method to repair his attitude.

"Housebreaking is not going well." -PREVENTION! Ian Dunbar has that one nailed. ;-)


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