If there was one thing I would suggest that all my clients read through before our initial consultation together, it would be this blog post. It briefly covers a broad range of topics that will provide success to you and your dog.
Regardless of whether you are a puppy owner or you have a dog with behavioral issues; the tips below will help you on your journey with your dog(s). These tips are in no particular order. Each one is important in its own way. Every one of these tips I follow with my own dogs. I hope that they help you as much as they have helped me!
Use each tip to help build:
- a better relationship between you and your dog
- a strong training foundation
- a clear and consistent relationship
- an understanding of your dog
- rules and boundaries for you and your dog
- and predictability
Tip #1: Be Your Dog’s Guide
Think of being your dog’s guide as being a tour guide, while your dog is a world traveler. We want to use clear and consistent communication to guide, teach, and train our dog’s necessary skills, rules, and boundaries. This allows them to become successful in their home and in public. Being your dog’s guide also means knowing what situations are appropriate and aren’t appropriate for your dog. Don’t assume your dog will be “fine” and don’t think your dog will “learn get over it”. Being a good guide will help you learn about your dog while setting him or her up for success. Remember, you are the tour guide, teaching your dog about the world you live in together.
Tip #2: Be Consistent
Keep all the rules the same. Whether you have friends or family over, or maybe you are somewhere in public, be consistent and keep the rules the same. You always want to keep your training consistent as it will be the easiest way to clearly communicate with your dog. Being consistent will help teach your dog, especially in new or more difficult circumstances. Consistency also creates more predictability for your dog (we will touch on this in Tip #6).
Tip #3: Be On The Dog’s Program
Go at your dog’s pace (not your own) and be on your dog’s program when training. Each and every dog learns and processes information differently. We must be aware of our dog’s learning style, his motivations, and his sensitivities. This is what being on the dog’s program is all about. Being on the dog’s program means that we are in touch with our dog and understand them for who they are. Once we understand our dog and we are on our dog’s program, then we can be the most effective teacher for them.
One of the biggest mistakes we all make as dog owners is picturing our dog doing something right away with only the end result in mind. BUT ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY! You need to build a proper foundation in order to achieve what you have in mind. Taking the proper steps and going at the dog’s pace is paramount. Understand that training and behavior modification is a process and that it takes time, practice and consistency to achieve your goals.
Tip #4: Know Your Breed Of Dog
Each breed of dog has their own set of traits, behaviors, quirks and instincts. Know about the breed or mixed breeds of dog you have. Knowing about the breed or breeds of dog are important because certain breeds may require more work, certain outlets and may have specific instinctual needs that must be met. Knowing about your dog’s breed(s) will help you prevent certain problems from occurring and will help you better address any issues you are having. For example, if you do not want your German Shepherd to be protective of the property, do not tether him in the front of your property and/or do not put him on an invisible fence system as he will learn to protect the perimeter of your property if he has guardian traits in his DNA. Doing so is essentially allowing him to practice behavior he may have been bred to display. To learn more about the breed or mix breed you have, I highly recommend reading the book, Meet Your Dog by Kim Brophey, Applied Ethologist and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.
Tip #5: Upper Management
This tip may be similar to Tip #1 Being Your Dog’s Guide, but it is not exactly the same, which is why it is its own separate tip. There are situations where we as the owner need to take control in order to make sure our dog is most successful. This is where upper management comes in handy. When I say “control”, I don’t mean to take control over your dog. What I mean is take control of the situation at hand. Look at it like any organization or business. You have the employees and then you have the manager. The manager is the one who makes sure everything is running smoothly. They are the ones assigning tasks, overseeing that jobs are done correctly and address problems when they occur. You as the dog owner must be the management. Upper Management as a dog owner is:
- Standing up for your dog (make sure your dog knows you have their back!)
- Take control of the situation so your dog is successful
- For dogs that are nervous or protective: we want them knowing that their owner has everything under control so that they don’t have to “step up to the plate” and feel like they need to be the one taking care of things.
- Provide clear communication and predictability so your dog knows what to expect
Tip #6: Predictability
I have said the word “predictability” in this post a few times, so let me explain. Dog’s generally thrive on clear communication and predictable situations and routines. When things are predictable, it can help your dog learn because they know what to expect. Creating predictable situations and routines can be very helpful during your training and/or behavior modification process, as well as throughout your dog’s life. For example, if we teach our dog who is fearful, reactive or even aggressive that guests coming over the house is a predictable situation that they don’t need to be concerned about, over time they can learn to tolerate those guests because it is always the same predictable routine over and over. It is a situation that is controlled and something they do not need to be worried about because you as the owner are managing the situation by making it a predictable scenario. If we can create routines and make things predictable for our dogs, we have a better chance at a better outcome. Help your dog learn what to expect in specific situations.
Tip #7: Habits- Practice Makes Perfect
There are good habits and bad habits. Think about what you want so that you do not allow your dog to create bad habits that will be problematic for you later on. For example, if you do not want your dog to dig, do not leave him outside by himself for hours to create his own fun. If he finds digging to be a fun and reinforcing activity for himself, he will continue to do it. Leaving a dog to their own devices can create a bad habit. If you do not want your puppy jumping up on people as an adult dog, then do not allow your puppy to jump on people as a puppy so they do not learn this bad habit. If you don’t want your dog barking out the window, do not allow him to look out the window so that it doesn’t develop into a bad habit.
I think you see where I am going with this. Remember practice makes perfect, whether those habits are good or bad ones. Instead, create good habits that do not create behaviors you don’t like.
Tip #8: Don’t Assume
I might surprise a lot of dog owners here by saying that dogs are not preprogrammed to know and understand what you as human want of them. Don’t assume just because you have a dog, that he should know how to sit, lay down or come when called. Dogs do not come with these skills when they are born. They learn these skills when owners teach them in a consistent manner. BUT, don’t assume just because your dog can come when called in your house or backyard, that your dog will come when you call him at the park. You will need to train your dog in different environments and situations in order to get the results you are looking for.
Tip #9: Training A Dog Is Like Going To The Gym
Owning and training a dog is like going to the gym and keeping the weight off. Let me explain…If you want specific results, you need to put the work and effort into it. It is just like going to the gym and losing weight. Just because you go to the gym doesn’t mean you can continue to stuff your face with carbs and sweets all day. And just because you lose weight doesn’t mean you now get a pass to stop going to the gym once you lost that weight. As soon as you stop going to the gym you might put some of that weight back on.
Dog training is the same way. The more consistent you are, the more of an effort you put in to what you want, the better the results will be. Now, I am not trying to scare of stress you out. This doesn’t mean you need to train every day or for long periods of time. It is more about putting an effort in when it counts and being consistent.
Tip #10: Be Fair To Your Dog
Be fair and understanding to your dog. This ties in with Tip #3, Be On Your Dog’s Program. Over time, especially if you are working with a qualified training and behavior professional, you will learn how to be fair to your dog. For example, when people come over to my house, my dog gets overly excited. It is not fair of me to start screaming “sit” or “lay down” or “go to your bed” because I have never spent the time to work on these skills in this specific situation. Instead, I decided to take the lazy way out by putting him behind a gate to settle for a couple of short minutes before he greets anyone so that he is in a more relaxed state of mind and so that I can prevent him from excessively jumping.
Another example could be a fearful dog who barks at other dogs on walks. It is unfair to start yelling at this dog and telling him to sit when he is to fearful and stressed out. It would be better to start working with this dog from a further distance away from the trigger. Do so can help teach him not to feel fearful which will reduce his reactions like barking, lunging etc.
Tip #11: Understand The Emotional Side Of Your Dog
Just like with people, every dog is different. They are their own individual. Some are confident and outgoing, some are soft and shy and some can be anxious or fearful. Understanding the emotional side of your dog can help in setting realistic goals, while implementing more effective teaching and training strategies. This is especially important for behavior modification programs.
One way to learn more about the emotional side of your dog is learning canine body language and communication signals. There are many credible resources where you can learn more about canine body language and communication. Here are some helpful links to get you started.
- Understanding Canine Body Language & Communication- Victoria Stilwell
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- i-speak dog- Canine Body Language
You can also learn more about your dog by hiring a qualified trainer or behavior professional. You can learn more about how to find a qualified professional here.
Tip #12: Dogs Are Body Language Communicators
Dogs naturally use their bodies to communicate to other dogs, animals and people. They also read our body language. They look at our bodies to understand what we are communicating back to them. Typically, dogs are looking at our bodies before they listen to the verbal cues we give them. This is why some dogs learn hand signals quicker than verbal cues. The way in which we present our bodies can affect how our dogs perceive us and react towards us in certain situations.
For example, I suggest standing straight rather than constantly bending over your dog as bending or hovering in their personal space can cause a dog to feel uncomfortable. We should also have a calm body posture. This is far better than having a very stiff, forward, threatening and forceful looking body posture as dogs can find this very threatening and uncomfortable. When a dog feels uncomfortable or threatened, this can cause some dogs to displays fearful and avoidant behavior and/or even aggressive behavior. This is also when some dogs may choose not to respond to cues such as sit, stay, come etc. Be aware of what you are doing with your body as this can affect the way your dog responds towards you or others.
Tip #13: Teach Your Dog What To Do
Dogs do not speak human, which makes it very challenging to teach them what NOT to do. However, dogs can be taught what to do. If you do not want your dog doing something, think about what you want your dog doing instead and teach it to them or implement a management strategy to manage the situation. For example, if you want your dog to be quiet when you are working at your desk or on a video conference call, teach your dog to relax on his dog bed near your desk or give him something to chew on to stay occupied while you are busy working. Does your dog jump up on the kitchen counters? Either teach him to go to a dog bed, teach him to relax near you or put up a barrier so that he cannot enter the space and practice the unwanted behavior. This also ties into Tip #7 Habits, because you need to teach your dog what you want him to do in specific situations that way it becomes a habit. Remember, practice makes perfect!
Tip #14: The Environment & Your Dog
The environment can affect a dog’s behavior, for better or for worse. Environment can affect the way dogs act, respond, and focus or lack thereof. Some environments can cause dogs to be relaxed, distracted, overstimulated, and even afraid.
In order to set a dog up to succeed in different environments, we need to teach them. Each environment affects each dog and their behavior differently. My point is, just because your dog knows how to come when he is called inside your house, does not mean he will understand how to come when called at the park, at a friend’s house or while running around with a dog friend. He may not understand if you have never taught him in that situation and/or environment.
Typically, you want to train new behaviors to your dog in a calm environment with little to no distractions. First, make sure your dog truly understands the behavior you are looking to teach. Once your dog learns the behavior and it becomes a piece of cake, then you can start making things more difficult and eventually start practicing in different environments with different levels of distraction.
Tip #15: Use Motivating Reinforcement
All living creatures, including us humans, repeat behaviors that are reinforced. Determine what your dog finds reinforcing and motivating. Reinforcement (aka a reward) can come in many forms. It can be treats, toys, play, working and even praise or affection. My dog, for example, is very toy motivated, so most of his skills are taught by using toys as reinforcement for a job well done.
Furthermore, I use reinforcers on a value system. The higher the value of the reinforcer, the more motivated the dog will be to work with you. Would you rather work for a five-dollar bill or a fifty-dollar bill? I’m guessing you would rather work for a fifty-dollar bill. Well, the same is true for our dogs. They would rather have the more motivating reinforcement. So… a boring dog biscuit or boiled chicken breast? Use what your dog finds reinforcing.
Another important note: DO NOT give treats away for free. Use every opportunity as a chance to teach and reinforce! That means even if you are not doing a formal training session, any interaction with your dog can still be considered a teachable moment.
Tip #16: Enrichment
Enrichment comes in many forms. It can be training, playing, performing a job or task or simply allowing your dog to sniff on a walk. Enrichment can even be through food dispensing toys like snuffle mats, slow feeders, DIY enrichment toys, a West Paw Toppl or Kong toy. Enrichment toys/activities like this can help get your dog’s mind stimulated and thinking, burn off some energy and keep your dog occupied and out of trouble. Using different types of chew options like bones can also be enriching.
These are some of the simple ways to provide mental enrichment to your dog, but there are many other things you can provide your dog as well. Mental enrichment is important because it can occupy a dog when we are busy and don’t have time to focus on them. It is also a great way to allow your dog to do something independently, rather than being left to their own devices which can create bad habits like begging, destruction or other behavior issues.
Tip #17: Have Fun!!!
Living with and training your dog should be an enjoyable experience for both of you. Owning a dog should bring joy to your life and should enhance it. Keep your training sessions fun. If you find yourself getting annoyed, impatient, or even angry, end your session and take a breather. The more enjoyable things are for you and your dog, the easier things will become moving forward.
You should also find out what you and your dog enjoy doing together. It could be training tricks, shaping new behaviors, taking a fun class together (in-person or online), going for a walk or a long hike in the woods, or maybe even learning a dog sport like nose work, agility, obedience or my personal favorite, sheep herding. Doing things that both of you can enjoy together will strengthen the relationship between you and your dog.
With my dog Journey, I have found we both enjoy going off-leash hiking together, taking agility classes and learning sheep herding. Until recently, he didn’t enjoy basic training or obedience skills, so we really didn’t do much of that. I made sure to be more on his program. The activities Journey and I both enjoy has definitely brought happiness to our lives and enhanced the relationship between us, and in turn has made all the other tips in this blog much easier to follow and implement.
Some fun photos of Journey