Dog Training Tip 1 – Start with focus and engagement
Often I get asked by clients, “where do I start?” or “what should I teach my dog first?”. When I am dog training, I start with focus and engagement. This is true whether I have a new learner or a learner who is familiar with me.
With a new learner, I’ll start in a quiet space and I wait for the dog to choose to interact with me. I have yummy treats and a fun toy to play with to reinforce them when they engage. Once your dog is interacting with you, you can start to teach focus. I think of focus as eye contact. I can shape this behaviour with a lure or capture it.
When I have a familiar learner I will start with focus and engagement. Engagement is a choice the learner makes. In a new or busy space this is essential as it lets me know my dog is in a good head space. It also lets me know the dog is interested in interacting with me. Thus, they are ready for me to begin the training session. For my experienced learner I will need to be able to get their attention before I ask for anything else.
Training Tip 2 – Be generous with rewards/praise
It is well known among rewards-based trainers that reinforcement makes behaviour stronger. I want my dog to interact and pay attention to me. I want my dog to do as I ask. Therefore, my reinforcement for these behaviours needs to be predictable, interesting and generous. With generous reinforcement my dog is going to be motivated to do the training exercises that I set. He will learn that listening to me “pays” and that it “pays well”.
Dog Training Tip = You will not get the behaviour you want, you will get the behaviour you reinforce.
When a reward takes a great deal of effort to earn, it will become anti-climatic and de-motivating for our dogs. Think about any situation where you worked hard and were disappointed with the reward you were given. The effort needed to obtain it was not equal to value of the reward. I strive to avoid this with my dogs.
Being generous with our dogs is not just about keeping them motivated. It also helps build a strong, healthy and happy relationship with your dog. It will also go a long way to making the process fun and exciting.
Training Tip 3 – Set up for success
To set up my dog for success, I think about training and preparing for a situation. Firstly, managing the environment to make desirable behaviours easy and undesirable behaviours more difficult. This can be as simple as working in a quiet space so that focusing on me is easier with less to be distracted by. Next, I am building my behaviour in steps. Gradually increasing the degree of difficulty as my dogs skill level improves. Adding in distractions only when he can do it in a quiet space and then only low intensity distractions to start. Lastly, I want to train for a situation and not in it. I want to prepare and practice skills before I need them.
I want to ensure that I set my dog up to learn and rehearse desirable behaviours. Practice makes perfect, and I want my dog practicing the “good” behaviours not the “bad”. Living and learning together will be smoother and more successful if I am proactive. Being proactive in your dog training is a top tip.
Dog Training Tip 4 – Listen to your dog
It is so important to listen to your dog. Your dog will communicate when he is having fun and engaged. Whether the exercise is too easy or too hard. When he’s ready to try something new or when he just is not feeling up to it today. In this way while I might challenge my dog I will not push him beyond what he can do. To understand what your dog is communicating to you, learn to understand his body language. How to see it and how to read it.
As stated previously, reinforcement drives behaviour. My dog is more likely to do behaviours I like when he gets something he likes in return. This is key, something he likes. My dog and not me decides what he likes, he decides what his reinforcement is. By listening to my dog I can find the best rewards. I will learn if my dog likes bum scratches or belly rubs. Perhaps he prefers tug games to fetch games. He might like carrot sticks more than chicken – anything is possible.
By listening to your dog, your training sessions will become more fun for him. This will make them more successful and more fun for you too.
Training Tip 5 -Timing
When teaching our dog, a critical component is the timing when reinforcing. When a dog performs a behaviour, the result determines the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. For example, I ask my dog to sit and follow this up with a yummy treat. In future my dog is more likely to sit to try to get that treat again. However, if something he didn’t like happened then he is not going to want to sit in case it happens again.
The timing is important for my dog to associate his reward with the behaviour I want to make stronger. Following on from our sit example; I ask my dog to sit but I ran out of treats. I walk to the kitchen to get a new treat and then give it to my dog who followed me. What behaviour did I make more likely, probably the following me to the kitchen rather than the sit. Next time I’ll give him a good pat with lots of praise or have more treats in my pocket.
Training Tip 6 – Be clear and consistent
It is important to remember that our dogs do not speak English. With practice and with repetition they begin to learn our communication style. Our words and signals.
When I talk about being clear, I mean that I am thoughtful about the information I give my dog. If I want him to learn a behaviour I’m going to give him information in a quiet space. I will make my signals the same each time. This applies to everyone who interacts with the dog. If one person says “lay down”, another says “settle” and a third person is saying “drop”, our poor dogs will take a long time to figure out what it is we want. Each person should use the same word and same hand signal to mean the same thing.
To be consistent we must ensure that the outcomes of our dogs behaviours is the same. It is easiest for our dogs if a behaviour is always ok or never ok. If we do not want our dog to sleep on the couch then it is important he never be able to do this. It will only confuse our dogs if sometimes he is in trouble and other times we let him up to snuggle.
Giving our dogs mixed signals, rewarding one day and punishing the same behaviour the next will confuse them. The training tip is to be thoughtful when communicating with your dog. Be clear and consistent.
Dog Training Tip 7 – Find time for play
A fun training session is more engaging and interesting for me and for the dog. When a training session is fun then the experience of training becomes motivating and reinforcing to us and our dogs.
Keeping this in mind, take the time to play with your dog. Play throughout the session. Use play as a reinforcer with a tug or ball. Take play breaks to reset and build engagement before shifting to a more difficult exercise. The great thing about play is that your dogs is happy and relaxed. A dog who feels pain, discomfort or threatened cannot engage in play. In this way it becomes a measure for how relaxed and happy our dogs feel about different situations.
Outside of a formal training session you can play games like hide and seek, fetch or have a wrestle. Play is not only great for dog training it will add to the positive relationship you have with your dog.
Dog Training Tip 8 – A little training everyday
Training is synonymous with learning. Learning and engaging the brain is an essential aspect of having a happy and well-adjusted dog. Providing opportunities each day to think and problem solve is important to our dogs. We can achieve this through daily walks where we allow our dogs to sniff and explore, foraging for food with food puzzle toys and training games/sports like agility. A structured training session is also great mental stimulation.
For a dog to do a behaviour well, it needs to be trained. This takes time and it takes practice, for you and your dog. Incorporating training as part of your daily routine is extremely beneficial. It allows you to teach your dog behaviours that are important and create opportunity for your dog to work his brain. I understand that life can be busy, but training is as essential as nutrition and medical care. BUT training doesn’t need to be hours of work each day, a few minutes can make a world of difference.
Incorporating training into your daily routine can be simple. Training your dog every day is not about the quantity of time but the quality of time. If you take your dog for a walk, spend some of that walk time training. Practice sit at the curb, shifting to and from the heel position. Work on focus games around distractions. At the dog park, practice come when called and then release your dog to play with his friends. At home while the kettle boils for the morning coffee, practice sitting quietly or work on a trick. During the tv ads you can practice laying on the bed and being quiet.
A 5 minute or 10 minute session here or there throughout the day can make all the difference to achieving your training goals. Ensuring your dog has opportunities to use his brain everyday will burn off mental energy.
Training Tip 9 – Be patient
As I’ve mentioned a few times now, training takes time and practice. Every dog is different and some require more practice than others. There is a quote I am often reminded of when working with dogs. It reminds me to be patient, to take my time. I am more likely to succeed if I take the time to do the steps and not succumb to the pressure of a deadline or goal.
“If you act like you’ve only got fifteen minutes, it will take all day. Act like you’ve got all day, it will take fifteen minutes.”
― Monty Roberts
Dogs, just like people, all learn at their own pace. Pushing a dog to learn faster is only going to make the process longer and more difficult. You and your dog will become frustrated with the training. You will end up repeating steps or going back to cover ground that was missed. Take the time your dog needs you to take and celebrate the wins no matter how small they may seem.
Dog Training Tip 10 – Have fun
Training should be fun. The more fun it is for you and for your dog the more likely you will want to train. Find the elements of training that will make it fun for you. The fun can be found in what you train, such as tricks, agility or scent tracking. I encourage you to think of training exercises as games to be played with your dog. Be sure to celebrate the wins, both yours and your dogs.