There are different philosophies and methods to teach and train a dog. Traditional 'old school' trainers use aversive-based training often with pain and intimidation to punish behaviour in an attempt to control. Modern trainers are focused on building a relationship of trust and use rewards-based training and avoid inflicting pain or using fear.
I have used the following guidelines to successfully train family dogs from puppies to adults including dogs with a history of trauma. These guidelines are based on 'positive reinforcement' with some 'negative punishment' and are safe, easy and effective and don't require any special equipment such as clickers. The same principles work with teaching human children, including children with behavioural issues, although humans are far more complex than cats and dogs.
The emotional brain of humans, dogs and cats are wired the same. The same responses to pain or reward. The same emotions of fear, anxiety and happiness.
Build a Relationship
Building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect accelerates learning. Do not use a harsh voice (yelling, angrily scolding) and do not use physical punishment (eg hitting, leash jerks, forcing a dog to the ground, rubbing their nose in their pee, staring a dog down). Methods using pain or fear may erode trust, increase anxiety, inhibit learning and have a high risk of inflicting trauma on you pet as well as getting seriously hurt yourself. Confrontational training methods have a high risk of fallout including anxiety, shutting down, trauma and aggression. Most dog bites are from a defensive response from fear.
Do not train when you feel irritable or easy frustrated or either of you is tired. Train when your pet is feeling safe, happy and relaxed. Never take your anger out on your pet. Be patient. Some pets (and children) learn quickly, others take more time.
Watch for signs of stress (eg lip licking, yawning, panting, inattention, stiff body) and back off and give your pet space if they show signs of stress. Keep sessions short and fun - it is better to do 5 minutes of training 3 times per day than 2 hours of training once per week. Training can even be done as part of play and can be fun. Puppies may learn quicker than older dogs with ingrained habits.
Sit down on the ground with a puppy to start with to be more inviting. Lower your height at first for an adult dog by kneeling or sitting. Your dog will be more receptive if you are not towering over them. Train in a quiet area without distractions and then gradually add controlled distractions eg someone walking past.
Do not punish a pet who has gone toilet in an inappropriate place. Just stay calm and clean it up without a fuss. Take your pet out at regular intervals to an appropriate area go to the toilet and reward them when they go there. Teaching a cue such as 'Be Quick' can accelerate toilet training.
Do not punish for any displays of aggression such as growling or showing teeth. Back off and be glad your pet gave you a growl as a warning before biting as dogs who growl are far less dangerous than dogs who don't give a growl as a warning. Punishing a growl may make the dog suppress this vital warning sign. Seek professional help for any aggression issues.
Dogs have the cognition of a 2-4 year old child and are like speakers of a foreign language. The key is to communicate with them effectively with consistency and kindness to gain their trust and cooperation. Just like human children, they will often seek to get any attention from you at all, including negative attention. So give them plenty of attention and praise them when they are behaving appropriately, even if they are just lying around quietly (but still awake).
Take care not to reinforce behaviours you don't want by giving attention during these unwanted behaviours (including scolding, pushing with your hands, eye contact). Most nuisance behaviours have been unintentionally reinforced by pet parents. Stop reinforcing behaviours you don't want by using withdrawal of attention (no voice, no eye contact, no hand contact, turning away, even leaving the room). Do reinforce all behaviours you want with rewards (mainly attention) whenever they demonstrate an appropriate behaviour - be observant.
For example if your dog jumps up, stand still, withdraw your attention, tuck your hands and arms up, remove eye contact, do not talk to your pet and turn away. When they are calm & all four paws on the ground or they sit, then reward with praise and attention. Then repeat the process if they jump up again - withdraw attention, turn away and then as soon as they behave in an appropriate way then give them your attention as a reward. If your dog gets tends to get overexcited and jump up when you arrive home, ignore them for 5 minutes until they are calm.
If they are used to jumping up, they may try a little harder at first to jump up more with frustration (this is called an 'extinction burst'). But immediately ignoring (no hands, no eye contact, no attention) during the unwanted behaviour and then rewarding with attention for the desired behaviour does work very effectively. The cue 'off' can be taught (which is an instruction to remove all paws from a person or object).
You can teach them to 'sit' as an alternative behaviour to discourage jumping. Have them sit before they jump up so they don't form a behaviour chain of jumping up then sitting to get a reward. Teach other people the same techniques so your dog learns not to jump on them either. Also when meeting people, teach your dog to be in their bed or to sit until they are calm and less likely to jump up.
How To Reward
With most dogs, I reward with verbal praise which also acts as a marker to indicate I want that behaviour (rather than using a particular marker word like 'yes' or clicker). Timing of the praise and tone of voice is the secret to success. Start by rewarding them with praise, attention and affection when you call their name and they look at you or come to you.
Affectionate touch may also be used as a reward. Some dogs aren't very comfortable with touch, especially on the head, but a pat on the shoulder is usually a safe place to pat a dog to acknowledge as a reward. Toys and play can also be used as a reward eg a tug toy. Play can also be used to train cues such as 'fetch' or 'come'. Use whatever rewards your dog enjoys.
Many positive reinforcement trainers fall into the trap of relying on food as a reward. Food used incorrectly can become ineffective if it is used as bribery. Food is a powerful motivator and most dogs respond to food treats. Food can give quick results but it is important to phase out food quickly when learning something new.
A piece of dry kibble or a pea-sized piece of a dried treat is ideal to use as a reward as it can be carried with you if training on a walk too. Give one piece of kibble/treat straight away when you are praising them for appropriate behaviour. Start phasing out the food after around half a dozen repetitions of teaching a new behaviour. Give the food reward unpredictably, every 2-3 times then finally getting rid of it all together and just reward with praise/attention/affectionate touch/play.
Not that some dogs (especially fearful or anxious dogs) may not like to be touched and some do not like verbal praise (especially if it's over-the-top or in a very high-pitched voice). To these dogs, the intended reward is a punishment. The dog chooses what is a carrot or a stick.
Using Voice and Signals in Training
Voice, including tone of voice is a very powerful training tool. Dogs pick up on emotion in your voice as well as pitch. A higher tone of voice (without screeching/squealing) is perceived by dogs to be more friendly. A lower tone of voice can seem like scolding or growling to a dog.
If your dog is deaf, you will need to use hand signals to communicate. Hand signals can be taught to dogs with hearing too so can use as an alternative to voice. The same hand signal should be used each time. Voice cues should be one or two syllables only eg 'sit', 'come', 'take it'.
A word cue such as 'sit' or 'down' should be given in a clear, neutral, assertive, tone of voice. Not inflecting upwards like asking a question and there is no need to shout. Women and children tend to have higher voices, so saying the cue in a slightly lower voice can be more effective. Men tend to have lower voices, so try saying the cue in a higher tone of voice. A child around 8 years and older can also be taught to practise cues and it can be a fun way for them to bond with the family pet.
Never use cues or the pet's name in a scolding voice.
Praise should be given in a gentle, friendly, enthusiastic, sing-song tone of voice (without squealing) as soon as the dog is performing the desired behaviour. Men tend to have lower voices and quite often their voices scare and intimidate dogs. Try using a softer, higher voice in a sing-song tone, even if it feels silly and watch how your dog responds to you. You know you have gotten your praise voice right as your dog will be all wiggly, happy, seem smiley and be attentive to you when you praise.
'Good boy' or 'good girl' or 'good dog' are ideal praise words that also double up as a marker to indicate when your dog has performed the desired behaviour. But it's your tone of voice and your timing that matters more that what you actually say.
I always use voice to praise and often a pat on the shoulder. I use a treat at first to teach new behaviours and then quickly phase the treat out.
The timing of cues such as words or hand signals is critical so that you don't confuse your dog. You need to associate the cue with the behaviour and at first only say the cue word or give the hand signal when the dog is demonstrating that behaviour.
For example, if you are teaching your dog 'sit', then only say 'sit' when they are actually sitting (take notice of any opportunity you see them in a sit position), then reward them with praise, attention etc. You can create repetitions by luring the dog using a treat into the 'sit' position initially, then saying 'sit' and then reward immediately when they are still sitting.
After as few as half a dozen repetitions, your dog should sit on cue if you say 'sit' when they're standing. Reward immediately when they do. Make the reward in proportion to the performance of the behaviour eg for quick execution especially at first when learning a new cue.
Always reward with at least praise for successful execution of the behaviour. Just be silent, still and say nothing (ie neither reward nor punish) if they don't execute the behaviour. Then say the cue again and reward straight away when they execute the behaviour. If they don't respond again, you will need to do more work associating that behaviour with the word ie only say the cue when they are actually doing the behaviour until they form that link.
Then you need to practice the sit in a variety of settings - off leash, on-leash, when you're sitting, when you're standing in front of them, standing beside them, inside, outside, on their bed, when you're at a distance and with gradually adding distractions. And also from different people (including older children in the household) giving the cue and rewarding the behaviour. Teach other cues such as 'down' and have them move from a 'down' to a 'sit'.
Dogs pick up on subtle visual signals you give off more than the words you say, so take care not to make movements such as bending over or bobbing your head when teaching a cue. Try to stay completely still.
If you are teaching your dog to 'heel', do not say 'heel' when they are walking a metre in front of you or they will think 'heel' means to walk ahead of you. Have the dog walking by your side at heel using a harness or head halter, then say 'heel' and reward. Then repeat this process and practise on-leash and off-leash in a variety of settings. Once your dog has learned and practised the cue, you can say 'heel' no matter where your dog is, and they will come to your side in the heel position and stay at heel whichever direction or speed you walk or even if you stand still until you give another instruction such as 'sit'.
I will blog with some more specific instructions to teach some basic cues such as 'sit', 'down,' leave' and 'heel' using these guidelines.
Dog trainer wars - differences in dog training philosophies.
Teaching your dog the cues sit and down.
What to teach your family dog.
Pet parent philosophy.
Choosing a dog trainer or behaviourist.
Educational posters are by artist Lili Chin from Doggie Drawings for Vet Behavour Team & Dog Decoder.
Xanthe founded an award-winning pet sitting business in QLD, Australia in 2011. After selling the business, she returned to Taupo, New Zealand.
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