There are three things to keep in mind when you’re working with your dog: timing, consistency and motivation. Understanding these three basic principles will help you better understand and train your dog.
Timing is important because dogs learn through association. Scientists say that if you react to something a dog does within .5 to 2.3 seconds – so about a second – dogs are best able to learn. For example, on one hand let’s say you tell your dog to “Sit” and he sits so you promptly say “Good boy.” Your dog knows that you’ve just praised him for sitting. On the other hand, let’s say you walk into the kitchen to find your dog has knocked over the trash can and rummaged through the trash at some point. There’s a huge mess on the floor, so you instantly get angry, and your dog proceeds to cower in the corner of the room. You assume, using human psychology, that your dog knows what’s he done wrong – after all, he looks guilty – so you proceed to correct him. “Bad dog! Stay out of the trash!” WRONG. Dogs live in the moment. Unless you catch him in the act of knocking over the trash can or raiding the trash, it’s too late to correct him. He’s “guilty” because he senses you’re angry, and he’s trying to appear submissive to avoid correction. He doesn’t know why you’re angry, he just knows you’re angry.
Dogs can learn if your timing is off, but they’ll learn more quickly if the timing of your praise and correction happens within .5 to 2.3 seconds of his action.
Consistency is usually the hardest thing for owners to follow through on. To get started, set your house rules, make sure everyone in the household is on the same page, and then stick to your rules! Some good examples of house rules are: No going on the furniture, no going in your bed, no pushing passed you to get through the door, no begging at the table, no excessive barking, no jumping up, no demanding your attention, no stepping on your feet and so on. A rule is a rule: There are no gray areas. If you come home from work in a good mood and allow your dog to jump on you, then you correct him for jumping on you the next day, you’re being inconsistent and unfair, and as a result you’re confusing your dog.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “But I want my dog to cuddle with me on the couch” and “And I let my dog sleep in bed with me.” That’s fine, but your dog cannot jump on the couch or get in your bed without permission. When you want my dog to come up on the couch or in the bed, you can give it a command like,”Come cuddle.” And when you want the dog off, you can say, “Alright, get off.” If your dog will not get off the couch when you tell him to get off, he should not be allowed on the couch or in the bed in the first place. Couches, beds, chairs etc are socially-significant areas. Your dog doesn’t ‘own’ them, you do. You control when and for how long your dog can be in that area. And if your dog ever growls or pitches a fit when you tell him to get off, you may be dealing with some dominance issues, and I recommend consulting a trainer.
The next aspect of consistency has to do with obedience training. Give a command once and if he doesn’t obey, follow through. Dogs have done a great job of making you think they don’t hear you, they can’t obey or they don’t understand. If you tell your dog to “Sit,” and he looks at you like you’re an idiot, but you know he knows the command, then step forward and push his butt down. It’s that simple. Teach your dog that you’re no longer going to sound like a broken record: “Fido, sit…sit…Sit! I SAID SIT!” Give the command once and follow through. Do not give a treat reward and do not praise your dog if you had to physically make him do the command. Rewards should be given for obedience not disobedience or selective hearing.
Another important aspect of consistency is understanding your dog’s level of training and not asking for too much too soon. For example, if you’re just starting out with Basic Obedience then your dog’s level of training is on a leash with treats involved. So if you’re busy cooking dinner in the kitchen, and your dog is three rooms away, and you call him but he doesn’t come to you, and you don’t follow through, you’ve just taught him that when you’re busy and your hands are full then he doesn’t have to listen to you. It would be better to not give a command at all than to give a command and not follow through. People often say, “My dog does great obeying commands when he’s on a leash with treats, but as soon as the leash comes off he doesn’t listen.” That could be because you’re not following through on commands, or you’re asking for too much too fast. Your dog can come when called when he’s three rooms away, but probably not on the second day of training.
At Vohne Liche Kennels, owner Ken Licklider once said: “Put a small mirror in your pocket when you’re training dogs. If you’re having an issue with your dog, pull out the mirror and look in it. There’s the issue. It’s you, not the dog.” Quit blaming your dog for your mistakes. Work with an experienced trainer and educate yourself so you know when your dog is confused and when he’s being disobedient.
Keeping your dog on a leash in the early stages of training will enable you to instantly follow through on commands, and it will give you greater control when teaching or reteaching him the house rules.
Food and water are primary instinctual motivators for dogs – they’re hardwired to work for them – so use that to your advantage! Instead of having your dog’s food magically arrive in his bowl at 8am and 8pm, put your dog’s food in his bowl then set it up on the counter and grab handfuls of food from it to use as a reward for training.
Most dogs have great food drive, but some dogs don’t care for food. There are three reasons your dog might not want to work for food: lack of exercise, poor quality kibble and free feeding. “Free feeding” is what we call it when owners leave their dog’s food bowl out and filled with food 24/7. If you’re free feeding your dog, STOP! That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. You’re stripping yourself of any opportunity to use food as a reward for training. And you’re cheating your dog out of the opportunity to work for his food. Double up on exercise. Feed a quality kibble. And make your dog start working for every piece of food he gets.
Secondary reinforcers, also called conditioned reinforcers, are things we condition dogs to like such as praise, petting, smiling at your dog, making eye contact, physical touch of any kind, the clicker, toys etc. Again, use these to your advantage! You love your dog, but that doesn’t mean you need to constantly shower him in praise. Be cognizant of just how much you’re praising, petting, smiling at your dog, etc. If you’re constantly offering him a praise etc “for free,” then your secondary reinforers won’t mean anything to your dog. Quit petting your dog constantly, stop telling him “Good boy” for nothing, and make him work for every “Good boy,” every pet, every smile. This will increase the value of those rewards thus incentivizing your dog to work for them.
Once your dog understands a command, wean away from a food reward and start incorporating more praise. And make sure you mean it when you praise him! Don’t just say a dull “Good boy.” (Would you work hard if your boss just said “Good job” as he walked out the door?) No! You want your hard work to be acknowledged, praised and rewarded! Dogs are smart. They’re masters at reading body language, and they pick up on pitch and vocal intonations better than you think. A high-pitched voice works best for praise. If you’ve ever heard a police dog handler praising his dog, he probably sounds like a high school cheerleader: “Go-o-od boy-y-y!!! Atta boy!!! Good dog!!” Because that’s what works. Don’t be boring. Have fun with your dog. Have fun training your dog, and he’ll want to obey you!
Timing. Consistency. Motivation. For more on this subject, check out the book “How Dogs Learn” by Burch and Bailey. It’s one of my favorite basic dog training books, and it’s the first book I recommend to clients that want to learn more about their canine companions.