This question has popped up a few times over the last few weeks. “What should I be training my dog to do?”. “Is it important that my dog learn to do … ?” There is so much information, and a lot of opinions, about what your dog should be able to do or should be learning from a young age. Honestly, the answer will vary from dog to dog and from family to family. Every dog is different, and everyone’s lives and routines are different. First thing first, take a breathe.
If your teenager is struggling with something specific than I would say focus on that. Whether it be that they are pulling you down the street or are afraid of visitors in the home. Focus on the behaviours and situations that are causing you worry or frustration. At the end of the day, we cannot do all the things. Our lives are busy with work, kids, family and other interests. This means it’s ok to prioritise, even our training goals. If there is something about your dogs behaviour that is frustrating, you by all means work out a compromise so you can both be happy.
Things are going well, what should I be training my dog to do?
If you find that things are cruising along, no major worries and you are trying to figure out what if anything you should be working on I would ask a couple of questions;
- What will help my teenager mature into a healthy and confident adult dog?
- What would I like to do with my dog in their lifetime?
If you can answer these two questions you’re well on your way to creating a list of training goals which are important and valid to you. No sense spending a whole lot of time working on a behaviour if it isn’t relevant to your life together. Unless of course that is the point, trick training or just goofing around to see what you can do or utilising training to provide stimulation.
So, what will help your dog mature in to a confident adult dog?
Generally exposure to a number of different experiences, dogs, people, animals, environments etc. This needs to be done in a way that your dog has a pleasant experience. Their body language is relaxed and happy. If they are showing signs of being nervous we take the time to acknowledge that and help them. This could mean inviting them to play, giving them yummy treats or just providing them with the space to investigate and adjust.
This social exposure does not stop at 16 weeks. Sure the critical socialisation period has passed but your young dog still needs to learn and adapt to the world around them. We continue to habituate them to different environments and build their confidence around anything that makes them unsure.
From a training perspective this just means making the time to take them out and about. If there is something that worries them, providing opportunities to become more comfortable around that thing or place. Calling in a professional trainer is also a great way to help you address any worries your dog has.
“How do I train my dog to be healthy?”
Seems like a silly question, right?! Fitness training for dogs is becoming more popular especially within the dog sports community. Working and developing muscles to aid them in high intensity sports such as agility and flyball. This type of training involves a series of movements and stretching designed to target specific muscle groups. Even if you do not do dog sports it will not hurt your dog to do fitness training, in fact quite the opposite. On a hot and rainy day you could use these exercises to channel physical energy while avoiding the crappy weather.
However, when I am thinking about the average family dog, and training to be a healthy and confident dog what I am thinking of is cooperative care.
We have any number of activities we engage in to keep our dogs healthy. We clean their eyes and ears. Brush them and bathe them regularly, especially if they have a long coat. It is important to clip their nails and be able to examine their teeth. There are trips to the vet and groomer where strangers will poke them and prod them. All these activities are necessary to maintain a healthy dog. From a training perspective we do not want these experiences to be frightening. We want our dogs to remain as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
The training we would do is to desensitize them to these experiences while also pairing them with their favourite things, such as extra yummy treats. Bring out the peanut butter and cream cheese.
What is Cooperative Care?
Cooperative care is the term we use to describe training designed to help dogs be more comfortable and cooperate with their own care. This could be training your dog to lay down and relax for a brush and roll over when it’s time to do the other side. Perhaps, hold their head still as we wipe their eyes. Or relax and lay still while we clip their nails.
Very important for all dogs is the ability to be handled by vets and groomers. To have a person they do not know examine them and manipulate their body as needed to check for signs of injury.
As we have better developed our skills and knowledge as trainers we have taken cooperative care training even further. A couple of cool things I have seen trainers and dog parents teach their dogs is to file their own nails by scratching at a file board. To open their mouths when asked so you easily brush their teeth. It is amazing what we can work on with our dogs when utilizing positive reinforcement techniques.
What would I like to do with my dog in their lifetime?
This was the next question I posed. Our dogs need different skills to engage in the varies activities and adventures we would like them to join us on. Even the family dog has boundaries they need to live by and skills that would make it easier.
The answer to this question will be as varied as the people you ask. For some this involves being a partner in certain dog sports for others a companion on hikes and camping trips. Many people train their dogs in therapy and support work for either themselves or in a volunteer capacity. Others just want a dog they can trust with the kids or wont injure their guests. People all over the world have no bigger plan they just love the company of a dog.
So whatever your plans, think about what your dog would need to do in that situation and what they could be exposed to. This is where having a trainer can be beneficial. To help you think through some of the skills you and your dog could be working on to prepare for life ahead.
For example, getting ready to take your dog camping. Is your dog comfortable in the car and in a tent? Do they have a recall? A leave it so they aren’t eating everything they come across. This might even include muzzle training even you plan to camp in areas where they poison the weeds, this can be toxic if your dog consumes it.
For the cafe connoisseur a leave it will still be handy for dropped food. Rather than focusing on a recall you might be more interested in a dog who can lay on a blanket or under a chair for long periods of time. Then there is being comfortable in crowded spaces around lots of people.
There are a lot of things we could do to prepare our dogs for all the different adventures life has waiting for them.
One caveat, I am talking about this purely from a teaching skills perspective. Your dogs temperament and health should always be a factor when considering what you’ll do together. You want to make sure whatever your long term goal that it suits the dog in front of you and not just expect them to meet social and personal expectations because they’re a dog.
Training my dog to have basic manners
There are so many things you can work on, but again really focus on what will be relevant to your lives together. Basic manners will be needed but what that looks like for you and your dog will be different than it is for others. Teaching your dog to keep four paws on the floor, settle in bed at night, no excessive barking, chew your toys not my shoes and wait your turn are just a few examples. When going outside, skills like walking on a loose lead, waiting at the roads, coming when called, waiting politely while I’m talking may be at the forefront of your mind.
There is no one size fits all. Behaviours which are causing a problem for you will not be a concern for others. Their dog either does not do it or they simply don’t mind, like jumping or napping on the couch.
I personally recommend that all my clients teach their dogs to engage with them and focus on them. To sit, drop and stand. Follow them around and enjoy being in their space. For me having a dog who is happy to interact with you, follow you around and play with you makes it easier to train them in general. Training just becomes an extension of the engagement your getting and that is a foundation for all learning you’ll do with your dog. I teach basic skills like sit, drop and stand so that people can learn the mechanics of teaching a skill to dogs. It just so happens that sit, drop and stand can be very useful behaviours for dogs to learn as well. Two birds!
What is relevant to you, your dog and your life together
There is a lot of information out in the cosmos and when it comes to dogs everyone has their opinion. From dog trainers to hair dressers, breeders to mechanics you’ll have no shortage of advice about raising your teenager. The important thing is not to let all that advice drown out your own voice. When it comes to your teenager start with what is annoying or frustrating or worrying you today. If your dog is pulling on lead you could start there or perhaps they jump all over visitors. When things are going well ask yourself what would help your dog be a happy and confident adult dog and what will you do together in their life.