How to train a dog

Excerpted from CATS AND DOGS, LIVING WITH AND LOOKING AT COMPANION ANIMALS FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW. Copyright © 2014 by Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the author. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

How do you train a dog? How do you get a dog to sit politely without barking when the doorbell rings or not jump up on the guests coming through the door? How about keeping a dog from snatching food off the table or out of the garbage? Or walking next to you without pulling to get ahead? Or all the other things you would like the dog to do? Where do you begin? You’ve heard all this stuff about how you are supposed to be the one in charge of the dog, the leader, the alpha in the pack but do you really want to stare down a puppy? And does all that even make sense to a dog?

Teaching your dog manners for a human dominated world requires understanding the species you are working with. The dog has many canine behaviors, preferences and disinclinations that are perfectly typical, acceptable and necessary in a dog’s world. Take jumping up on people, this is dog greeting behavior, a fine way to say hello for a dog. So too is making the most of the opportunity to grab a bite from the table or the garbage and that pulling is only natural when you have four legs which move you faster than people with two legs. These and other natural behaviors are dogs being dogs and not trying to be in charge of humans. We might also bear in mind that much of the natural behaviors of dogs are behaviors that we have bred for such as barking for alerting us to danger or the chasing and stalking we have selected for in working dogs. And while dogs are a social species to begin with we have also actively recruited for amiability towards humans. This amiability creates a receptive audience to learn from us. That dogs like us is a wondrous thing, truly it is. Their apparent non stop eagerness to please lends itself to making us believe they understand everything we ask of them. Would that it would be so! If only we could just explain to them what we want and then have them do exactly that. But dogs, no matter how much they like us, no matter how co-evolved, do not come to us speaking human language and while we teach our infants and children words, then phrases, then sentences and then letters that make up these words, phrases and sentences we expect our dogs at every age to know those human words, phrases and sentences along with all manners of things they have never been taught.

So how then do you teach this dog that never went to school? You allow for natural behaviors, show them what you want, make sure they know how to do what it is you are asking for and when they get it and even when they almost get it, reinforce it and make sure to make the process this learning, a meaningful and pleasant one. You also want to manage the environment to set everyone up for success. Things like, no more uncovered trash cans in the kitchen or food left out in dog reach and where the best place is to begin to train with the least distractions for the both of you.

Let’s look at barking. Asking a dog to stop barking denies the natural behavior and need to alert humans and others in the environment through barking. Ignore the alert and the dog continues as the alert has not been effective, a sort of “Did you hear me???”, “The stranger is still at the door!,” “the other dog is still across the street,” the cat is still on the fence,” “I am still home and not sure when you are ever coming back!!!,” the list goes on. For this sort of barking issue instead of reacting to the bark with your own barking (what might yelling sound like to a dog, hmmm?) first acknowledge the bark. Use the dog’s name and one or two other words to signal an affirmative on the alert being received, such as “Fido, yes I know.” Or “Thank you Fido.” Now ask for “quiet” or “shush.” You can begin to train these commands by offering a high value treat directly in front of a barking dog’s nose. The barking will stop because the dog will sniff the treat, the very instant the barking stops offer the treat and say “good quiet” or “good shush” in a happy and excited voice so the dog can begin to learn this thing they just did goes along with that word you just said, a treat and a happy owner. Know that, barking and sniffing cannot happen simultaneously so offering the treat at that moment marks the quiet behavior you want (it does not reward the barking).

First ask clearly: get the dog’s attention that a request is coming by alerting the dog with the use of their name and then ask for the request. Remember, the dog’s name is not the request. Too often when we work with our dogs we repeat their name over and over again in an effort to get them to do something, “Fido! Fido! Fido” never translates to “Fido. Sit.” As much as you may believe that your dog knows what you would like him to do he needs clear direction and reinforcement. (Continue Reading Below).