Contrary 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.
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’.