Whether you already have experience of dog ownership, are a new dog owner or are about to be a dog owner, then training your dog is one of the most important aspects you need to consider. Likewise if you currently have a dog with behaviour problems, then dog training is essential.
However, knowing you need to train your dog and actually training your dog are two entirely different things. Just where do you start?
To successfully train your dog, you need to consider and understand some key facets of dog behaviour. Knowing and understanding these 5 facets will greatly improve your dog training.
1. The origins of dogs. Dogs are in essence descended from modern day wolves. While domestication has dampened or eliminated many traits, some key natural instincts still remain. Like wolves, dogs are pack animals. What does this mean?
Well, there are several traits that derive from being a pack animal. The important ones when it comes to training are dogs are naturally sociable, they are used to routine and they are used to a social structure (i.e. the famed alpha male).
As sociable animals dogs thrive on the interaction with other dogs. A dog does not consider you as a human but rather a funny looking dog. Therefore, dogs thrive on the interaction with you. Just like a wild wolf, rejected by the pack, if you starve a dog of this interaction, they will become unhappy and very agitated.
When it comes to training, you can use this to reward or punish your dog. Interacting with your dog (e.g. patting, encouraging/excited talk, etc) can be as much of a reward as treats of food. Similarly, ignoring your dog (e.g. turning your back, stern talk, putting them in another room, etc) can be a harsh punishment for a dog. Its definitely better than smacking them.
As with all animals (including humans), dogs thrive on routine. If they know what and when they are likely to be doing certain things, then they are relaxed and comfortable. They know what to expect and are not confused by ever changing circumstances.
Training should also stick to a routine. Decide when the best time of the day is best for you to train your dog and stick by that time as rigidly as possible. Your dog will soon get into a routine of expecting to be trained at say 3pm every day and will be prepared for when training time comes. If your dog is ready and expecting to be trained, then it goes without saying that they will actually train better.
Within a pack there is always the alpha male. The dog that leads the pack, protects the pack and ultimately ensures the pack is fed and survives. As mentioned, a dog sees you as a funny looking dog and not a human. To be a good dog owner you absolutely need to be the alpha male. How many nature programs have you seen where the alpha male is being challenged by one of the other would be alpha males? Likewise, your dog will be challenging you to be the alpha male – this is a natural instinct for them.
You must establish yourself as the alpha male from the beginning. Providing food, interaction, punishing bad behaviour, body and vocal language all go towards asserting yourself as the alpha male. If your dog does not consider you as the alpha male, then they will not listen or act on your training instructions.
2. A dog’s memory. We all know that goldfish have short memories. However, you may be surprised to know that dogs also have short retention memories. If you could tell your dog something, it is likely that by the next day or a few hours later, they will have forgotten. On the other had (or paw) dogs do have incredibly good associated memory. This basically means that if your dog can associated something with what you tell it then it will likely remember what you told it for years to come.
For example if you told your dog (assuming you could speak doggy language) that the chocolate biscuits were in the cupboard your dog would probably forget this within a few hours. However, if you showed your dog where the chocolate biscuits were, repeating the words ‘chocolate biscuits’, every time you said ‘chocolate biscuits’ it would probably go straight to the cupboard. It may also search the cupboard every few hours for the rest of its life looking for the chocolate biscuits but that’s not the point.
Therefore, when training your dog you need to associate the training topic with something. For example: if you are teaching your dog to sit. If you associate the word ‘sit’ by getting your dog to physically sit and then giving them a reward. Repeat this a few times and soon your dog will associate your command ‘sit’ with it physically sitting and then getting a reward. The difficult bit is disassociating the reward – ask yourself why almost every dog will naturally sit when you have food in your hand?
3. Doggy language. Despite comments above, we cannot speak doggy language and dogs cannot speak our language. This is important when it comes to training. You have to choose words for commands that both you and your dog will remember. Be careful not to choose very common words or else your dog will be easily confused when this word keeps appearing within the middle of a sentence. A common word often used in training dogs is ‘come’. For this example, it may be better to use a slang version or combine ‘come here’ into a single short word.
The important thing is that when you decide on a word for a command to stick with it and be consistent, otherwise your dog will become confused.
I know it can be difficult, especially if you come home to your new TV pulled off the cabinet, to always use pre-selected words when talking to your dog. Your dog does not speak human language and will only know what those few words you have trained it with are (and the tone you have used). So if you start using other words or different tones your dog will not understand.
For example: imagine someone speaking to you in a foreign language asking for directions to the city hall. You can’t understand a word they are saying yet they get more and more frustrated, talking in a louder and quicker language. Is it your fault you can’t understand them? Why are they getting angrier when you have no idea what they are saying? What is their problem? What will I do? Similarly, if you haven’t trained your dog to understand what ‘sit’ is and you start shouting ‘sit’, ‘down on back legs’, ‘down’, etc is it your dog’s fault it is looking at you confused and increasingly scared.
4. Puppy behaviour. Just like babies, puppies do not know how the world works or how they are supposed to behave within that world. They need to be taught and learn what is good, bad, right or wrong.
A healthy and happy puppy will be a bundle of energy, desperate to explore as much as they can as quickly as they can. Dogs do not have good eyes that can see things or hands that can feel the intricacies of objects. Instead they have noses that can smell things and mouths that can chew objects.
While this can come through training and general maturing, the importance of this is that you must be patient and understand where your dog is coming from and why it does what it does.
5. Structure and enjoyment. While I have in a round about way touched on these two above, no dog training information would be complete without mentioning these two aspects on their own.
However you decide to train your dog, as with routine, you must have a structure to your training. If you have never trained a dog before, how do you know when your dog can start learning to sit, stay, etc and when it can run down to the local shop and pick the paper up for you?
You need to know what it is you actually want to train your dog to ultimately be able to do and what steps you need to take to get to that point. Personnel dog trainers, dog training classes and dog training guides can all do this. Personally, I prefer to train my own dogs and believe that in the end you develop a much stronger bond with your dog. Also, your dog is more obedient to you rather than the trainer. However, at the very least, and particularly if you have never trained a dog before, I would recommend purchasing a dog training guide.
The small amount of money for a dog training guide, compared to the time you would waste searching for free online tips that will be a mix match of training and will not provide the structure, is just not worth it. More than that, the time saved in training and the end result of a properly trained dog for the rest of its life (around 15 years) is worth many times more than the cost of even the most basic training guide.
If you, and more importantly your dog, do not enjoy training then you will never properly train your dog. Training will take longer and be much harder. When you start training your dog remember they are most likely to be a puppy and at that age all they want to do is run and explore their new world. Be flexible with the time you plan to spend training. Try and keep training short but if your dog appears to be really enjoying it then be prepared to train for longer. Likewise if your dog will just not focus, then maybe leave it for a bit before going back to it. With a routine and structure to your training, your dog will soon learn that when it comes to training they need to focus for a short length of time and will be better able to do so.
I hope the above has been helpful in your desire to train your dog. By knowing why and how your dog does what it does, you should be able to understand it’s behaviour much better. By using this understanding you can better bond with your dog and train your dog. A good training routine and structure as well as plenty of patience and eventually you will have a well trained dog. Always always always make sure training is enjoyable for both you and especially your dog.