Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dog training basics - setting them up for success

Teddy, eagerly awaiting his next command in a training session

Just like humans, a balanced diet and regular exercise help to keep a dog healthy, happy, and sane. Especially with the sporting breeds and working dogs, exercise and training are essential to keep that cute little puppy from turning into a large destructive monster.

A lot of the dogs that I have fostered have obviously been the products of failed attempts at training, but without exception, these dogs HAVE BEEN TRAINABLE. I know because I house trained them and taught them the basics, like sit, lie down, stay, and no.

There are some important principles to keep in mind for every dog:

  • Eliminate distractions. Do initial training in the same quiet place, one dog at a time. Make sure there aren't any toys or fascinating objects to be played with or examined. Put other pets somewhere else so that the student doesn't think he has to compete for rewards. Also, take the dog out and make sure he goes to the bathroom before starting. You don't want to have to correct him for peeing on the carpet when that is not the lesson of the day.

  • Keep it simple. Only teach one simple behavior at a time. Once your dog has gotten some experience with positive, successful training, you may be able to get more ambitious, but it is especially important at the beginning to get him used to the idea of training itself. He's not just learning the lesson of the day, he's learning how training works. Think of it as preschool, and keep your goals small and achievable.

  • Keep it short. Just a few minutes for puppies, 10 or 15 minutes for adult dogs. Let the dog be your guide. If he gets bored, he'll stop cooperating and then it becomes a drag instead of a bonding experience. It's much better to have a few short sessions a day than to have one longer session.

  • Keep it successful. Start and end the session with a "no brainer" for the dog to be sure he warms up and warms down with a positive experience. This may be as simple as calling his name and having him look at you. If that's the only thing he can do reliably, then that's where you start.

  • There's no such thing as a free lunch. Many dogs have to learn the concept of rewards and at first won't draw the connection. A good rule of thumb is to not ever give out treats "for free". Even if it's just walking over to you, make sure the dog has to do something to get a treat. Once he or she knows sit, that's always a good one, especially since it will help keep him from jumping on you to try to get a snack.

  • If he's not getting it, you're probably not asking right. Don't get frustrated with the dog. For example, many dogs learn sit by having their rump pushed down. Some learn sit better by having a gentle upward pressure applied to their collar with a leash. If these don't work, think about when your dog does this behavior on his own.

    With one dog who had a hard time learning to sit, I had to get creative. She just didn't get it, and finally I decided to bore her into sitting. I told her "sit" and then just leaned on the wall until she got bored and sat down. Then I praised her and treated her and did it again. As I repeated this, her response time got shorter and shorter as she figured out what I wanted. This only worked because she was in a small, quiet room with no furniture, no toys, and no other dogs, so boredom was really the only possible outcome.

  • Dogs are context dependent learners. For example, especially at first, if you teach your dog to sit in the den, he may only sit on command in the den. When he goes to the kitchen, he might not realize that it still applies. You'll have to show him all over again, but each different place you do it, it will be quicker. Teach him in one place and make sure he gets it for a few sessions first, then start introducing the behavior in different places. For many dogs, after getting it in a few different rooms, they generalize the behavior.

    Some important exceptions are indoors vs outdoors and home vs away. It may be like starting from scratch when you make a transition like this because because to the dog, it's an entirely different universe and there are distractions everywhere.

  • Be aware of how different surfaces and situations affect your dog's behavior. For example, my small dogs don't like to sit on tile and vinyl floors because they can't get a stable grip on the floor. The big dogs find it easier. Also,the little guys don't like to sit or lie down around the excitable pointers because the pointers sometimes step on them.

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