Nov 23

Dog Training – A Dog’s Nature

Corgi puppyDogs are surprisingly complex creatures.

Some official estimates of the number of breeds reaches as high as 800 in Western countries alone. Even given that distinguishing one breed from another can be carried to absurd extremes, the variety is astonishing from a human perspective, who have, perhaps, a dozen ‘breeds’.

Complicating the picture still further is the well-known fact that dogs have descended from wolves but began domestic interaction with humans over 10,000 years ago. As a consequence, there are behaviors that develop regardless of circumstances and some that are as unique as the human the dog is paired with. Still, some common traits stand out.

Dogs are predators.

That doesn’t mean they necessarily hunt and attack every passing cat or rat, but the capacity is always in them. With acute hearing and head muscles that allow precise orientation of their ears, dogs can pick up a range of sounds and locate the source quickly and with high accuracy.

A dog’s field of vision is higher than that of humans. Their field of view has been estimated from 180-270 degrees, by comparison to a human’s 100-150 degrees, allowing them to track events better.

And, of course, there’s that famous sense of smell. Citing figures such as having 25 times as many scent-receptor cells or being able to sense concentrations 100 million times smaller than humans conveys the fact one way.

Another is to report behavior. Golden Retrievers, for example, can smell gophers through two feet of packed snow and a foot of frozen earth. And, they’ll dig through it to get to the gopher. That’s predatory behavior.

Dogs are social animals.

That’s common knowledge, of course. But, though known, it’s often ignored. Individuals will often lock a lone dog away in a garage or pen, or on a rope in the yard for long periods. This isolation from contact with humans and other animals invariably leads to fear and/or aggression and other forms of maladjustment. Dogs need companionship in order to develop healthy behavior.

Isolating a dog for brief periods can be a useful training technique. Fear of expulsion from the pack can incent overly assertive, alpha-status seeking dogs into alignment with the trainer’s goals. In any human-dog pair, the human must be the alpha (leader). The alternative is property destruction, human frustration and unsafe conditions for people and dogs.

But excessive time devoid of social interaction with another dog, the human, or even a friendly cat harms the dog’s psychology and leads to unwanted behavior. Even guard dogs have to be able to distinguish between external ‘threats’ and members of its own ‘pack’.

Dogs are exploratory.

Like the two-year-old humans at roughly their same mental level, dogs learn by exploring their environment. And like those humans, they can engage in destructive behavior. Dogs are no respecters of property. Training and an appropriately selected set of objects and suitable area can channel that behavior into something acceptable to humans and healthy for the dog.

Providing toys with characteristics very distinct from human property, such as rawhide bones rather than rubber balls that are hard to tell from children’s, leads to less confusion and misbehavior. In many cases, however, the problem is solved by scent. The dog’s toys may look like the child’s, but smell very different.

Some amount of digging may be inevitable as part of the dog’s exploration. Be prepared to patch holes in lawn if the dog is unsupervised for very long. Plants can usually be protected with cayenne pepper paste, bitter apple and other preparations.

Dogs are scavengers

Dogs will eat deer droppings, even when they have perfectly sound and ample diets. They’ll chew on dead rats, eat grass and ingest a wide variety of things that their own experience shows causes upset stomachs. And they’ll repeat the behavior day after day.

Acknowledging their limited ability to connect cause and effect when those are separated in time is a must in order to keep them healthy and safe.

Recognizing a dog’s nature, and working within in it rather than against it leads to less frustration for both human and dog. Enjoying the beneficial aspects, such as spontaneous dog hugs (leaning into a leg), paw offering and a head laid on the lap are just a few of the rewards.

Oct 30

Dog Training – Why Training Is Vital

German Short-haired Pointer puppy

German Short-haired Pointer puppy

The word ‘vital’ has its roots in the Latin word for life. That gives us a clue to why dog training is so important, both for owner and dog – it enhances the quality of life for each.

Though dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still have much of the wild in their natures. They adapt well to home life, but they are still dogs, not furry small children. Training helps maximize peace and security for both the dog and the family.

Dogs are by nature hunters and therefore are inclined to chase things. Young dogs especially are prone to take off after another animal, a car or a child. Any of these scenarios can result in harm to your companion, a person or property. Training a dog early on to listen to voice commands from everyone in the family lessens the odds of bad consequences.

Teach your dog to obey ‘halt’ or ‘stop’, then ‘come’ and you’ll be much less likely to have accidents as the dog responds to his sudden surge of emotion. At first, it might be necessary to use a leash so that you can physically jerk the dog sideways at the same time you issue the command. Try to avoid jerking backward against the dog’s throat. Then, as they associate the command with the physical action, they will come to obey by voice alone.

Techniques like that help ensure the security of other animals and people, but also that of your own dog as well. Many dogs will race after another who, in fact, can do them great harm. Their emotions take control – as when the other dog has entered his ‘territory’ – and they don’t judge, as we might, whether they have any chance of chasing the animal away. They simply react.

But the importance of training your dog goes well beyond the very basic level of safety and security, or the avoidance of physical harm and property damage. Dogs are by nature pack animals. They recognize a social hierarchy that is established very early in life. You must be at the top of that hierarchy, for the sake of your own sanity and that of your dog.

Some dogs will naturally try to take the so-called alpha role. That has evolutionary advantages when they live in the wild. But in a domesticated situation you have the greater ability to forecast consequences. You and your dog will be better adjusted if you never let even the most assertive dog be your master.

Peace of mind comes from teaching your dog that, no matter how treasured they are, you are at the top of the heap. That means they must come when you say so, stay when you command and do as you wish. Among adult humans, that sort of behavior is very dictatorial and many are reluctant to assert themselves that way. When dealing with your dog, it’s essential.

Being the leader of the pack gives the dog a sense of its place in the group. It can follow your lead, secure in the knowledge that you will keep it safe from harm and well-fed. You’re acting like the alpha dog would. Training is the only way to bring that about.

Oct 26

Dog Training Styles

training with dogsContrary to popular belief, there are not as many training styles as there are trainers. Despite individual differences, people handling dogs fall into clearly recognizable categories. And no matter your individual style or that of your dog, there remain certain truisms.

The Too-Easily Frustrated

No activity apart from human child rearing requires as much patience as developing cooperative behavior in a dog. And most individuals don’t spontaneously possess that much. So, along with training the dog, self-training is usually necessary.

Be prepared to invest the time daily, at least half an hour but preferably an hour, to developing the desired behavior in your companion. And when you feel you’re at your limit of patience, whether at 10 minutes or an hour, end the session.

Strive to lengthen that ‘time to boiling point’ a little each day. Remind yourself you are dealing with a dog. Even the most easily trained breeds or individual dogs understand at roughly the level of an average two-year old human. Of course, there are those rare exceptions.

The Too-Ready To Surrender

Dogs by nature are pack animals that develop in a hierarchical social structure. There are alphas (leaders) and omegas (passive, sometimes fearful) and those in the middle. For any training program to succeed it’s essential that the human (male or female) be the alpha male of the pack. You are training the dog, not the reverse. Though it can understandably feel like the latter, sometimes!

Be firm, but not harsh. Have the patience not only to avoid the anger prompted by frustration at failure to obey, but to persist. Don’t surrender your authority. Training a dog to obey isn’t for the purpose of ego-gratification or feeling superior. The benefits are increased safety for your dog, your children and neighbors, and a well-adjusted companion.

This won’t always be easy – some dogs are natural alphas. But even in purely wild packs that role can and does change among individuals, when the more assertive individual insists on taking it. Be consistent, don’t give up, and your dog will follow your instructions.

The Unreasonable

Even the best-trained dogs will not always do what you want when you want. Expecting a dog to too-quickly understand a new command or to unfailingly remember a previously learned one is a recipe for frustration. Dogs’ memories work very differently from humans, even two-year-old humans. Take the time to learn your individual dog’s capacity and limitations.

Some breeds are inherently more easily trained, and individuals vary. Some are more naturally energetic (terriers, retrievers, dalmatians) and some more low-key (basset hounds, collies). Age obviously makes a difference. Ten-week old puppies will invariably display less attention than a three-year old dog.

Work with your dog’s nature, not against it. Harsh tones at the least provocation, strong physical punishment for less-than-instant obedience, and other tactics are self-defeating. The goal is to build trust so the alpha (you) will be obeyed by preference, not fear.

Training styles differ, but some traditional techniques have proven their worth.

Training styles are sometimes divided into those that use both positive and negative reinforcement, or rewards and punishment and those that rely solely on rewards. Using the word ‘punishment’ naturally turns off many who want to treat their companion with care. Substitute the word with ‘discouragements’ and you have the more accurate sense.

Rewards run the gamut from praise – which should be lavish and frequent when the dog exhibits a desired behavior – to petting and belly rubs or back scratches, to treats.  All these are useful for rewarding learned behavior.

But when using treats, don’t go overboard. High in calories and packed with flavor, dogs will often eat as many treats as are offered. Dogs prone to weight gain can have too many, and too many treats can produce fussy eaters when regular food is served. The goal is to eventually elicit the behavior solely from verbal commands and hand signals.

Leash and collar training are essential, at least for a time, for almost every breed and individual. Like young humans, dogs have a natural desire to do what they want when they wish. Self-restraint doesn’t develop spontaneously.

When training a ‘sit’, a short and gentle pull on the leash can encourage slow-learners or the reluctant to comply. Pull back, not up. But not hard, you don’t want to bruise a throat. When training to exit – not jet – the house a restraint is imperative, especially if something interesting (like a rabbit or cat) just zoomed by.

Discouraging unwanted behavior also involves a large variety of techniques, some requiring considerable creativity. Stopping plant chewing, for example, can often be accomplished with a little cayenne pepper paste applied to the leaves. Harmless to most plants, be sure to check with your gardening expert before applying.

But the same technique can’t be used for, say, shoe or furniture chewing. Most dogs aren’t leashed inside the house, so that tool isn’t available either. Creativity and experimentation is called for. Sometimes it’s necessary to substitute with rawhide bones, cotton chew balls, ropes and other more esoteric objects.

Wrapping an old cotton-shirt around a ‘peanut butter bone’ – a pigskin or rawhide toy suffused with peanut butter odor – has rescued me more than once. But those who keep laundry within dog’s reach won’t want to encourage chewing on t-shirts.

Common sense will help individuals avoid bad training techniques

If you were slapped with a newspaper when you vomited on the rug, would you regard that as an appropriate response? Dogs are not humans, but they are aware and have some reasoning capacity. Physical punishment or loud, harsh words for unavoidable accidents injures trust and creates fearful dogs. Fear is counter-productive, except in extreme emergencies, where the dog or a person is in danger.

Dogs can be trained to do amazing things. One well-known woman has a dance routine with her companion that goes on for several minutes. Few would have said it was possible before she spent the years of attention needed to create that range of behaviors.

Find a style that generates trust and attention, that leads a dog to want to cooperate, and you’ve reached an important goal: leading your willing ‘pack’.

Oct 24

Training Show Dogs

Miniature Schnauzers

Miniature Schnauzers

Over 130 different breeds compete in major dog shows, such as the Westminster in the US or Crufts in the UK. But there’s a good deal more to developing a show dog than simply acquiring a dog of one of those breeds and teaching it to sit or stay.

Within any breed there are dogs that are closer to the ‘ideal’ than others. This ‘conformation’ is an important first criteria. Conformation refers to the specific arrangement of parts – legs, tail, head, ears, etc – that determine the dog’s appearance. Since this is difficult to judge in young puppies, show dogs are often the offspring of other show dogs.

Once you have a fine example in hand, you’re ready to begin a dedicated training regimen. Daily for several months or years, the trainer teaches the dog ‘the basics’ and then more advanced behaviors. Sit, stay, heel, and so on are covered, of course, but with a keener eye toward precision than usual.

A show dog has to hit a mark (a specific spot in a show ring), pose (‘stack’) exactly, and walk in tune with its handler. And all this with thousands of people watching.

As with any training, begin young. Along with the basic behaviors, you’ll need to teach the dog to be calm in the face of much handling. Judges will inspect eyes, teeth and other body parts along with the coat and general posture.

Bathing is one of the best ways to begin this process. Teach the dog to enjoy having its feet moved, its gums exposed, ears fondled and so forth. This should be pleasurable for the dog and fun for you. If you can teach them to defer shaking vigorously when wet, you’re on your way!

During and after the bath, practice posing (‘stacking’). Four feet on the ground, one foot raised, standing and sitting, and other postures will all be needed. In every case the dog should hold the pose precisely and for as long as you wish.

When you leash train the dog to walk, the goal is to get them to follow you precisely whichever way you choose to go at any given second. Start with normal walking/heeling, but move on to sharp direction changes as soon as possible.

To encourage the dog to follow use a clicker when executing a change, or give a quick, sharp tug and release on the leash. Of course, the tug should be in the direction you go. At all times the dog should be directly at your side, never ahead or behind.

Graduate to walking on a very loose leash. Before long the dog should be able to follow along at a brisk pace and sense immediately when you change direction. Then it should turn as you do and resume the ‘at the side’ position.

Gradually increase the speed of the walk until you work up to a slow trot.

Just as important is to stop at the precise moment you do. With clicker or tug and release, the dog can quickly learn to follow your lead. Go when you go, stop when you stop. And for as long as you stop or walk. Before long only the lightest indication by the leash should be required.

As with any training, lavish praise and a sense of enjoying the activity is enormously helpful. Show dogs, though some are temperamental, almost universally get great enjoyment from the activity. You should too, otherwise the large investment of time and money – you’ll discover quickly – will not be worth it.

Oct 16

Training Rescued Dogs

dog and ownerNormal dog training requires patience that is greater nowhere else but child rearing. Training rescued dogs takes even more.

Though sterilizing dogs – spaying (removing female organs) and neutering (removing male organs) – has been common practice for decades, birth rates continue to outpace ownership. Add to that a percentage who are lost or wander away and the problem grows larger.

The inevitable result is a large number of dogs who often end in facilities where they’re either adopted or terminated.

But, some of these unfortunate animals get a second chance. Either picked up off the street or taken home from shelters they find homes with compassionate and committed individuals who want to help them achieve a decent life. Such caring people can find themselves with more than they bargained for.

Rescued animals have often been physically and mentally abused by former owners, or experienced horrendous conditions before being found. Sometimes, because of impatient or unrealistic owners who found their temperament undesirable, they were simply released to get by as best they could.

Even wild dogs don’t do well isolated from a pack. Untrained dogs, on their own with no other to teach them, fare even worse. But with patience and skill such animals can usually be trained to at least tolerate touching, to refrain from barking at the slightest provocation.

The first step is restoring physical health. Get the dog a thorough examination. No animal is going to be amenable to learning if it’s diseased or the training is painful. Any malnutrition, common in rescued dogs, must first be overcome.

Try to obtain any history. Often this will be impossible, but knowing about any past abuse, temperament or medical history and general conditions is helpful.

Next, try to establish trust slowly. Don’t force physical contact on the dog. Offer inducements to let them seek it from you. At first, instead of offering a treat at close range to a potential biter lay the treat on the floor then step back several feet. Praise the dog lavishly for taking it.

When you’ve worked up to physical contact, which happily some will seek immediately, try rolling them over and placing a hand on the chest. Aggressive dogs will resist and passive dogs will accept this fearfully. Neither response is desirable. Unlike normal training, don’t immediately force the aggressive to accept a secondary role. Take it slow. For the fearful, provide a belly rub and soothing tone to show that being on their backs is not a prelude to punishment.

Rescued dogs tend to be older, mixed breed, have temperament difficulties and come from painful circumstances. All these tend to work against the dog learning the usual range of desired behaviors, and generally more slowly. Some conditions are such that full recovery never occurs.

Exercise even greater patience and care, but don’t let the dog run the household. Even with rescued dogs it’s important that the human be the alpha (leader).

The reward of the greater expense in dollars and time is often a completely devoted and loving companion. Even dogs can exhibit gratitude toward kindness.



Oct 11

Training Passive Dogs

Labrador Retriever puppies

Labrador Retriever puppies

Like humans, dogs are individuals. Some, through a combination of genetics, circumstances and self-development display assertive characteristics and others are more passive.

Assertive dogs seek alpha (leader) status, forcibly remove rawhide bones or toys from others, try to enter doors first and are generally more demanding of attention. Passive dogs – either with, without or despite training – will tend to eat last, enter last and wait to be noticed.

At first blush, it may not appear that passive dogs really require much training since much of it takes the form of restraining dogs from unwanted behavior. Assertive dogs are leashed and corrected when they pull ahead during a walk or training exercise. Assertive dogs are taught not to rush out the door after every passing cat. Even fetch and release is often more a matter of redirecting behavior than encouraging it.

By contrast, passive dogs spontaneously wait to exit after others and show less tendency to dig, chase cats and perform other unwanted behaviors. Passive dogs will often separate themselves a short distance from other dogs in the house.

But some passive behavior is undesirable and can even put the dog at risk. Willingness to allow any stranger to approach unchallenged can, unfortunately, sometimes be an unsafe practice. Accepting treats from anyone who offers can be bad for the diet or even dangerous. There are, regrettably, sick people who will poison a dog or steal it this way.

Teach the passive dog that boundaries need to be respected both by the dog and unknown humans. Discourage treat taking from people you meet only once. Paranoia would be misplaced, but you’re training the dog not judging every stranger.

To optimize your chance of success, as with any dog, work with the dog’s nature not against it. Even passive dogs enjoy play and welcome rewards. ‘Passive’ and ‘fearful’ are not the same thing.

If you have multiple dogs, take the less assertive one out by itself from time to time. That way the only more dominant member of the pack nearby is you. Allow and encourage it to enter the house first occasionally. Feed it while the others are not around sometimes. When multiple dogs are fed together, ensure the passive one is not chased away from food.

Find one or more objects the dog enjoys – a favored stuffed cotton ball or rope or a beef-treated rawhide bone, for example. Perform the same ‘sit’ then ‘up’ maneuver with the dog you would with any other, but don’t keep it waiting as long as you would a more assertive dog. A more encouraging, friendly voice is helpful, too.

Passive behavior is, to some extent, unchangeable – either physiological/genetic or ‘chosen’ (to the extent dogs have free will). Expectations about modifying the behavior of passive dogs shouldn’t be too high. Nevertheless, with patience and persistence some degree of change is possible.

As with any training program, consistency and commitment are key. Expect to have to devote an hour a day for some weeks or months to encouraging a particular habit. Don’t give up at the first or even the tenth failure.

Oct 05

Training Older Dogs

walk on the beachOf course, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is a myth. Like humans, or many other species, dogs learn new things every day throughout life. My ten-year old Golden is still mentally alert and eager to ‘play’ in new ways.

But, also like humans, learning new behavior is often as much a matter of unlearning old ways. Dogs do have a strong tendency toward habits, and modifying or extending those habits after years of repetition takes extra patience and focused guidance.

Physical limitations should always be taken into account. The three-year-old dog has a huge capacity for running, jumping, retrieval, obstacle course maneuvers and so forth. The older dog may still want to do all those things, even learning new configurations, but tires more easily and loses interest more rapidly.

Take training sessions in shorter time chunks and expect to carry out many more repetitions. Make obstacles lower and runs shorter. Throw the ball two or three times, rather than twenty. Hearing loss occurs in dogs, too. Don’t assume they’re ignoring you when far away and facing away.

Allow for longer recovery periods between sessions. An active game of fetch is still a possible source of enjoyment, but keep in mind the dog will often want to go longer than is safe or healthy. Ligaments get stretched more readily and injuries more likely if you over do it.

Restrain food rewards for older dogs. The desire to reward an older dog for a new behavior is even more pronounced than for younger dogs, of whom we expect more. But older dogs can also more easily be ‘over treated’. They gain weight more readily and shed pounds slower.

As with younger dogs, consistency is still essential. Specific play periods that begin and end around the same time of day help cue the dog. Similar areas for specific activities help provide a sense of familiarity as background for new lessons.

When working with my Goldens the backyard is for tennis ball fetch, the forest never. But that fetch behavior in the yard can be extended to the forest to retrieve fallen deer antlers.

Conversely, digging – a natural behavior in many breeds, almost impossible to eradicate entirely – can be channeled into harmless areas even in older dogs.

For those not lucky enough to have a forest in the backyard, a ten-by-twelve foot area of the pen or yard where the dog is allowed to indulge can help release the urge. The boundary can be marked by variation in scent or ground composition. Even older dogs can learn what is theirs to play with and what isn’t and their sense of smell remains keen.

Focus more on building on the dog’s existing strengths, since older dogs are less malleable. One individual will be excellent at fetch and release, the other more inclined to hang onto the ball. One does well with a Frisbee, the other never gets the hang of it. Rather than force desired behavior, work with each one’s unique nature.

The dog more inclined to hang onto a ball is a good candidate for learning to pull a wagon by a rope. The better ‘fetch and release’ dog can more easily be taught to get a plastic food container. Handy things, since trainers get older too.

Sep 18

Training Assertive Dogs

Jack Russell Terrier puppy

Jack Russell Terrier puppy

As descendants from wolf packs, dogs have and seek a natural hierarchy in which some are dominant (alphas) and others follow. Struggles among young pups to sort of who is which start early, in some cases three weeks after birth.

Apart from human society, wild dogs will fight – sometimes to the death – to maintain or achieve the alpha status. Losers are occasionally expelled from the pack entirely.

But in any human-dog pair the human has to take the leader role. The alternative is property destruction, human frustration and usually a maladjusted dog. Naturally, that’s sometimes easier said than done.

Pups display early in life the tendency to want to lead or acceptance of a subsidiary role. For those who insist on being alpha, several techniques can help adjust the dog’s behavior. But first you have to identify it.

Put the pup on its back with a firm hand placed in the middle of the chest. No need to press hard, just enough to keep the dog from wiggling away. Monitor the strength and length of time the dog takes to submit, signaled by pulled back paws, averted eyes, and general relaxing.

Most individuals will struggle at the unfamiliar position and submissive role. The strength of the struggle and the length to relaxation will vary from breed to breed – Golden Retrievers may submit relatively quickly, where terriers may never stop struggling.

Dogs learn by cue and repetition so to assist curing excessive assertiveness lean your face close to the dog’s and growl, bark or even shout when required. Don’t expect completely satisfactory results the first few times, but gradually most will learn to accept their secondary role.

A variation has the person stand or kneel in front of the dog, then lift it at the chest using one or two hands. Most dogs, especially dominant ones, dislike this but they quickly learn who’s the boss. Alternatively, grasp both front paws and lift up. Don’t be too aggressive. The goal is to encourage acceptance of their role, not to punish.

For those inclined to leap up on people, there are several useful techniques.

First, try to distinguish between dominance and the desire for affection. Many dogs leap in order to get closer to the human face. Dogs that height have eyes that see at that level. Eye contact and face rubbing is used by them to encourage bonding and establish social roles. They may just be trying to communicate. Kneel down and allow non-biters to get close to the face.

Maintain enough eye contact to establish dominance by waiting for them to look away. Try not to blink. When the dog accepts its role, praise lavishly with ear rubs and leaning your forehead into the dog’s head. Keep your head higher until your role is well-established.

For those who need extra discouragement, try the following.

Watch the dog’s face and body carefully for tell-tale signs signaling an imminent jump. Discourage the behavior with voice commands (‘stay’ or ‘down’) and a palm thrust out and down into the dog’s face. If they’re already in mid-flight, raise a knee slightly into the dog’s chest. To keep them off and put them off-balance, NOT to pummel the dog or throw it backwards, except in emergencies.

Establishing the alpha role takes patience and commitment and repetition. Assertive dogs will test you throughout their lifetimes. Be prepared to defend your role.

Sep 15

Tips for Selecting Game Dogs

Leaping Hunting DogProper training begins even before the pup is born. While it’s not always possible to buy a pup from champions, selecting the proper breed and temperament is essential.

Choosing a pup starts with choosing the dam and sire, whenever possible. The pup’s parents should be active, alert and amenable to training and preferably gaming dogs themselves.

But even the best of parents have offspring that differ in personality. Some pups simply don’t have the interest or temperament to be working dogs. No amount of training can overcome that limitation.

You’ll also need to zero in on what you intend to use the dog for. Flushing dogs stay close to the hunter, typically within a few dozen yards. Spaniels are often seen in this role.

Pointing dogs take on the task of finding birds, then holding a point until the hunter catches up to flush them. Most pointers will also be trained to retrieve downed birds.

True retrievers find downed birds and, as the name suggests, retrieve them. Sometimes that entails moving through thick, tall brush. At other times, your canine partner will swim out in water you would find too cold and fetch a bird.

Once you’ve found a pup from a breed that fits the bill, it will take several months to determine whether it can be completely trained. Intelligence and a willingness to learn are essential, but they’re not enough. It must also be able to take instruction and not become distracted easily. Most puppies are active and easily distracted at first. It will take time to discover whether that energy can be directed to suit your goals.

When you’ve determined you have a good candidate – healthy, good stamina, responsive to commands, eager to please – real training can begin.

The basic commands taught to any companion are done first, of course. They’ll all be needed out in the brush or woods, just as they are at home. Sit (or hup), stay, leave it, drop, down and a number of specialized behaviors will all be used.

Added to those elementary tasks, a pointer will need to be taught self-restraint. It should locate and point, not flush game early. A retriever should locate, retrieve and then release the game. Those that insist on retaining game, or put up a struggle, flunk the test.

Training will have to be carried out for at least an hour every day, usually two in separate one-hour sessions. For those who haven’t the time, expertise or interest ‘started’ dogs can be purchased, but at a premium. A ‘started’ dog is one bought slightly older and already trained up to a point.

What point that is will vary widely. Don’t be shy about asking for details of the training regimen. ‘Started’ dogs cost two or three times what’s already a more expensive pup, $2,000 is not unusual. You want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

In either case, you’ll need to continue a patient, time-consuming training routine if you want the dog to serve its intended purpose.

Sep 09

Dog Training – The Basics

Puppy trainingThough dog-human interaction goes back thousands of years, communication between the two is still sometimes rough. The human half of the pair is usually the smarter party, but watching the usual training sessions one can have legitimate reason to wonder.

Dogs understand and respond at roughly the mental level of a human two-year-old, but there the similarity ends. Their senses operate differently – their color vision has a different response pattern to reds and greens, for example, and obviously their noses are infinitely more sensitive – and their minds process information differently as well. Anyone training dogs has to take this into account in order to avoid human frustration and canine misbehavior.

Dogs are by nature pack animals. Descendant from wolves – where even the ‘lone wolf’ is an anomaly – they’re social and function best with active interplay and within a strict hierarchy.

So, set aside half-an-hour per day, an hour would be better, for at least the first few months of training. Start as young as possible. Four weeks is not too early with some breeds, provided one doesn’t expect too much.

Elimination (‘potty’) training details we leave for elsewhere, but all training follows similar guidelines.

Establish dominance early on. Dogs have a hierarchy – there are alpha dogs, beta dogs, and on down to the omega. For a sane household, and a well-adjusted dog, the human (whether male or female) must always be the alpha male of the pack.

This will be easier or more difficult depending on breed and even with individual dogs. Like humans, some are simply more assertive than others. Leashes, collars, commands and other training aids are all highly useful but most important is attitude. Never let your dog be the boss.

That guideline doesn’t imply you must enforce your dominance with physical force. Sometimes, used appropriately, that will be necessary. Usually, simply being firm and willing to wait for compliance will be enough.

For many, placing them on their backs when young and placing a firm hand in the middle of the chest until they lower their paws – a sign of submission – will be enough. With some, reinforcing this by putting your face close to theirs, emulating dominant dog behavior, can help.

Start on a short leash to restrain the dog’s natural tendency to run and scamper. Allow plenty of time for free running behavior, essential to dog health, but that’s before or after training, not during. At least, not at first.

Start simply by choosing short, clear commands that sound distinctly different: sit, stay, down, come. Use a firm, but not harsh voice. You’re in charge, but not angry. Avoid double-word commands like ‘sit down’ or ‘stay down’. These sound too much alike and quickly confuse the dog.

Accompany each verbal command with the same tone, look and hand gesture. Eventually these can separate, but at first it’s essential to provide the simplest, most consistent form of communication.

Just like two-year old humans, dogs have limited capacity for grasping the subtleties of language. Assist their understanding by rigid consistency. Don’t use a single command word to mean more than one thing. ‘Down’ can mean ‘don’t jump on me or anyone else’, or it can mean ‘get on your stomach’, but it has to mean one thing only.

Be clear, be patient and be committed and the result will be a dog who trusts and listens to you. And that makes it worth the effort.