In my years as a dog trainer, I've learned that if an outcome to a behavior is positive, then a dog is likely to repeat that behavior, and if the outcome is not favorable, then that dog is less likely to repeat it. This is generally true for virtually all animals, including people. Unfortunately, the dog-training world is full of people who place entirely too much emphasis on the latter part of that statement, as I've written about before. However, training is far more effective when you focus on emphasizing what you like more than what you don't like.
By using positive methods, you will become an understanding, engaging teacher, and your dog will love learning from you! Regardless of the breed, age, and gender of your dog, there are six very important things you need to know to train her. While my book goes into a lot more detail, here's a brief overview:
Training Principle No. 1: Bonding with Your Dog
From the moment you bring your dog home, one of your main focuses should be your bond with him or her. That's because having an exceptionally well-behaved dog is primarily a byproduct of having a relationship based on love, respect, and understanding.
The good news is that it's easy to bond with dogs -- they are hardwired to want to connect with us, so much so that researchers have found that dogs would rather spend time with humans than with their own kennelmates! As much as we love dogs, it turns out they think we're pretty awesome, too. Studies have shown that during human-animal interaction, levels of oxytocin (the "bonding" hormone) increase for both the person and the dog.
So how do you bond with your dog? Have fun! The fastest way to achieve a bond with most dogs is through activities that involve play, such as fetch, tug-of-war, or even a game of chase in the backyard. As Plato once said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." That certainly applies to dogs, too.
Bonding is also a matter of letting your dog know that she can trust you and depend on you. That means keeping her water bowl filled, feeding and walking her at expected intervals, and speaking to her in a kind voice. You'll find that dogs are pretty easy to bond with when you meet their basic needs and wants.
Training Principle No. 2: The Importance of Exercise
Like humans, dogs need to keep physically active to stay healthy. However, it's about much more than just their health. From a teaching perspective, you shouldn't expect a moderate -- to high-energy dog to absorb new concepts and focus on the lesson at hand until she has exercised and used up some of her energy. Also, if your dog has an unwanted behavior -- say she likes to shred apart your furniture every time you leave the house, incessantly jump on guests who come to your door, or dig up the backyard -- the source is likely a lack of regular mental and physical exercise. Exercise isn't optional for many dogs; it's a necessity. Dogs, at their core, require regular interaction with people -- and when you couple such interaction with exercise, you can expect better results in training.
Training Principle No. 3: Learning to Communicate
From the second you start training your dog, you need to establish some basic communication with one another. Luckily, dogs are hard-wired for that, more so than any other known living being. In fact, experts have found that of all the species on the planet, dogs can understand humans better than any other (including chimpanzees.)
If you have a puppy or a new dog with little training, then you'll need to accept that it can take some time to establish mutual communication, which includes eye contact, hand signals, teaching your dog your language, and learning your dog's communication cues. That's why controlling the environment is vital during this communication building phase, because your dog has yet to learn what you expect of her. This process might feel like it's taking longer than it should, but don't give up -- it can take a week or two to lay some groundwork. Once you do, progress will start to speed up quickly.
Training Principle No. 4: Be Consistent
The hallmark of any truly successful dog trainer is consistency. Until you get good at this, your dog will not listen to you or understand you in the way that you probably want.
For example, if you ask your dog to "come" and she doesn't, then it's on you to snap into training mode for a few seconds or minutes and motivate her to come to you, regardless of what you are busy doing. You gave the request; now see it through and make sure you get the result you want. You may have to grab a treat and lure your dog every step of the way from where you called her from or possibly escort her on a leash, but this is what it means to be consistent.
Also, when something happens that you don't like, then it's your mandate to make sure it doesn't happen again. Every instance in which your dog performs an action you don't want means it will take more time to resolve. Say your dog rushes into another room after you've asked her to stay, and you don't call her back and repeat this training exercise. You've made an error in your consistency, which may eventually snowball into a dog who listens and responds to requests only on occasion. If you notice that your puppy is chewing on the table leg, you need to divert her attention to something else that is acceptable to chew on every single time.
Training Principle No. 5: Control the Environment
Again, the number one mistake made by new pet parents is giving their dogs too much freedom too early by not controlling their environment enough! This is absolutely essential to effective training. Don't just wing it -- dogs are very smart, but without guidance from us, they have no idea how to interact in our culture.
My protocal is to attach a four- to six-foot leash to my belt loop during the day so that when I get up to go to the kitchen, check the mail, or do yard work, my dog is with me. This not only allows you to prevent your dog from inquiring about the expensive shoes you left by the front door but also gives you the opportunity to avert or interrupt potential behaviors you don't wish to see repeated. Most important, it also gives you many more opportunities to notice your dog doing things you like so that you can communicate your pleasure with him! For best results, attach your dog to you or make sure she's in a puppy-proofed area the first few months of training. That way bad habits won't even get started. Your goal is to put your dog in a setting where she is not able to do something you don't want.
Training Principle No. 6: Train from the Inside Out
If you want long-term meaningful results with your dog, your goal should be not to make your dog do something (which I call "outside-in training") but to make your dog want to do something on her own (called "inside-out training").
The idea behind outside-in training is that if you make your dog's life momentarily unpleasant, you will discourage certain behavior in the future. This strategy is called "experiential avoidance," and I find it less than ideal as it's an amateurish, antiquated approach. Remember, we are capable of communicating with dogs much more intelligently than this.
Inside-out training, on the other hand, encourages our dogs to use their sophisticated brains. When they do think for themselves and behave a certain way because they've been taught to do so by you, then they'll more likely repeat that behavior of their own accord. You'll also see results a lot faster, and your dog will be more prepared for the years ahead.
So how do you get your dog to think from the inside out? Along with learning how to bond and communicate with your dog, it's a matter of showing your dog the right thing to do and then making her life awesome when she does it by rewarding her with a treat and/or playtime, and genuine praise.
Inside-out training also addresses the cause of a problem, not the symptom. For instance, if your dog is chewing a table leg, applying bitter-tasting sprays isn't going to stop your dog from wanting to chew. She may avoid that table leg until the spray wears off, but she hasn't learned not to chew up your house and possessions. Tools such as these are just bandages, but they don't get to the root of the issue (which in the case of chewing is most likely boredom or teething). You'll see that everything I'll teach is geared toward addressing the cause, and this will make all the difference.