I will start the New Year with a bit of a confession. Ranger’s New Year’s resolution is to be a good boy in 2019. While he certainly fell into that category at times in 2018, he was far from a model citizen. We were working from a solid base – he aced puppy kindergarten, and successfully completed a “family dog manners” training course. I could no longer claim he was “just being a puppy” as he turned 1 in early 2018. His basic commands were not as sharp as they needed to be, and he had developed some leash aggression with both people and other dogs. Using the tips below and some help from a professional dog trainer recommended by Ranger’s veterinarian, we made some real progress.
Here are a few tips to help you get started training your dog:
- Use positive reinforcement – Veterinary behavior research has shown that rewarding dogs for engaging in desired behaviors is much more effective in generating lasting behavioral change than punishing dogs for inappropriate behaviors. Most behaviorists and trainers recommend having a variety of treats of varying values for this purpose. Bits of cooked steak or chicken may be of highest value, whereas a small piece of a regular dog treat may be of lesser value. If your dog is not strongly food motivated, favorite toys can be used in a similar fashion. Use the highest value reward for the most important behaviors or commands, such as “come” or “stay”. Using treats of lesser value can be helpful for practicing commands once they have been established. Rewards should be given within 1-2 seconds of the positive behavior so the dog can make the association between the behavior and the reward.
- Be consistent – If more than one person is sharing the responsibility of training the dog, make sure everyone is on the same page and speaking the same language. Everyone should use the same terms for each command, reward positive behaviors in a similar fashion, and if undesirable behaviors are corrected, they should be corrected in the same way every time. If the goal is to not have the dog jump on people, every person who encounters the dog should ignore him and turn away if he tries to jump. Similarly, if the goal is to have the dog sit before crossing the street, the dog should always sit before crossing any street, regardless of who is walking him or if anyone is coming.
- Be patient – You might get lucky and have the world’s easiest dog to train. But odds are you won’t. Training your dog will require lots of patience and practice. There will be days where the training sessions go perfectly and your dog seems to be mastering everything you are trying to teach her. There will be others where she’s just horrible and does nothing right. Look for progress in weeks to months, and realize that there may be ups and downs each day or during each session.
- Master the basics first – As tempting as it might be to teach your dog fun tricks like “high 5” or “roll over”, getting a firm grasp on the basics including “sit”, “stay” and “come” is the most important first step. These commands are essential for ensuring good behavior around people and other dogs, but also may help your dog’s life in an emergency situation.
Your veterinarian can be a great resource for information about dog behavior and appropriate training classes in your area. Follow these tips, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for help if things aren’t going smoothly. The sooner you address a problem behavior, the easier it will be to resolve.