If there is one thing that I would suggest my clients read before working with us, it would be this blog. It briefly covers a broad range of topics that will help you and your dog(s) be successful.
Regardless of whether you are a puppy owner or you have a dog with behavior issues, the tips below can help you on your journey with your dog(s).
These tips are in no particular order. Each one is important in its own way. I follow each of these tips with my own dogs. I hope that they help you as much as they have helped me!
Enjoy your journey with your dog!
Use each tip to help create:
- a better relationship between you and your dog
- a strong training foundation
- clear and consistent communication
- an understanding of your dog
- rules and boundaries for you and your dog
- predictability for your dog
Tip #1: Be Your Dog’s Guide
Think of being your dog’s guide as being a tour guide, and your dog is a world traveler. You want to use clear and consistent communication to guide and train your dog to understand the skills and boundaries to live in your world.
Guiding and teaching your dog will allow them to become successful in their home and in public. Being your dog’s guide also means knowing what situations are and aren’t appropriate for your dog. Don’t assume your dog will be “fine” and don’t think your dog will “learn to get over it.”
Being a good guide will help you learn about your dog while setting them 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. Consistency in training is 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, which reduces stress. (We will touch on “predictability” in Tip #6.)
For example, if you don’t want your dog to jump on you when you come home from work, do not allow your dog to jump on you in other situations. Or, teach your dog a cue that indicates when they are allowed to jump up to say “hi.” Regardless, be consistent. Do not sometimes allow things and other times not.
Tip #3: Be On Your 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. You must be aware of your dog’s learning style, their motivations, and their sensitivities. This is what being on the dog’s program is all about.
Being on the dog’s program means that you are in touch with your dog and understand them for who they are. Once you understand your dog and are on their program, then you 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. ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY!
You need to teach 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. Knowing about your dog’s breed or breeds is important because certain breeds may require more work or certain outlets to meet their specific instinctual needs.
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 them in the front of your property, and do not put them on an invisible fence system, as this may teach them to protect the property and its perimeter. This breed is bred to have guardian instincts, which may appear given the opportunity. Allowing these behaviors to occur allows the dog to practice behavior they may have been bred for, and those behaviors can be especially hard to address.
To learn more about the breed or mixed 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. There are situations where you as the owner need to take control and be responsible for making sure your dog is successful. When I say “control,” I don’t mean to control your dog. I mean take control of the situation. Look at it like any organization or business with employees and a manager. The manager is the one who makes sure everything is running smoothly. They assign tasks, assure that jobs are done correctly, and address problems when they occur. As the dog owner, you 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!).
- Taking control of and responsibility for the situation so your dog is successful. Especially for nervous or protective dogs, it’s important they know their owner has everything under control so that they don’t have to “step up to the plate” and take care of the situation.
- Providing clear communication and predictability so your dog knows what to expect.
Tip #6: Predictability
I have used the word “predictability” in this guide a few times, so let me explain. Dogs generally thrive on clear communication, predictable situations, and routines. Predictability helps dogs learn because they know what to expect and what is expected of them. 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, it’s a good idea to have a routine for when guests visit your home. Visitors are a source of excitement for many dogs and anxiety for some. A routine serves your dog well, as it becomes a consistent, predictable pattern with time and practice. This reduces arousal and anxiety, leading to more appropriate behavior when you have guests.
If we can create routines and make things predictable for our dogs, we have a better chance of a successful outcome. Creating predictable patterns and situations will help your dog learn what to expect and know how you want them to act in different 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 learn habits that will be problematic for you later on.
For example, if you do not want your dog to dig, do not leave them outside by themselves for hours to create their own fun. If they find digging to be a fun and reinforcing activity, they will continue to do it.
If you do not want your puppy jumping up on people as an adult dog, then do not allow them to do it as a puppy so they don’t learn this bad habit. If you don’t want your dog barking out the window, do not allow them to look out the window and develop the habit.
Remember, practice makes perfect, for both good and bad habits. Encourage good habits that do not involve behaviors you don’t like.
Tip #8: Don’t Assume
It surprises a lot of dog owners to learn that dogs are not preprogrammed to know what humans want of them.
Don’t assume that your dog should know how to sit, lie down, or come when called, just because your last dog did or your friend’s dog does. Dogs are not born with these skills. They learn them when owners teach them in a consistent and clear manner.
Furthermore, don’t assume that, just because your dog can come when called in your house or back yard, they will come when you call at the park. You will need to train your dog in different environments and situations in order to achieve 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! Let me explain.
If you want specific results, you need to put in the effort. Just because you go to the gym for an hour every day doesn’t mean you can then be totally sedentary for the other 23 hours. And just because you have some success doesn’t mean you can stop going to the gym once you achieve your goal. As soon as you stop going, you might lose some of the progress you made.
Dog training is the same way! The more consistent you are and the more effort you put into what you want, the better the results will be. I am not trying to scare you or stress you out. This doesn’t mean you need to train your dog for hours every day. It’s more about putting in an effort 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 visitors come over to my house, my dog gets overly excited. It is not fair for me to start screaming “sit” or “lie down” or “go to your bed” because I have never spent the time working on these skills in this specific situation. Instead, I decided to take the lazy way out by putting each dog behind a gate to settle for a couple of minutes before greeting anyone so that they are in a more relaxed state of mind.
Another example is a fearful dog who barks at other dogs on walks. It is unfair to start yelling at your dog and telling them to sit when they are too stressed and anxious. It is better to start working with your dog at a greater distance from the trigger. This will help them to feel less stressed, which will reduce or eliminate the unwanted reaction.
In every situation, think about how you can be fair to your dog.
Tip #11: Understand The Emotional Side Of Your Dog
Just like people, every dog is different. They are their each individuals. Some are confident and outgoing, some are shy, or even anxious and fearful.
Understanding the emotional side of your dog can help you set realistic goals, while implementing more effective teaching and training strategies. This is especially important for behavior modification programs.
The MOST important skill as a dog owner is to learn about your dog’s body language and communication signals. This will help you learn about the emotional side of your dog, how your dog is feeling, and what your dog is saying.
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 by Victoria Stilwell
- ASPCA Canine Body Language Webinar
- iSpeakDog Canine Body Language Gallery
You can also learn more about your dog’s temperament, communication, and body language by hiring a qualified trainer or behavior professional.
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 really well. Dogs look at our bodies to understand what we are saying to them.
Typically, dogs look at our bodies before they listen to the verbal cues we give them. This is why some dogs learn hand signals faster than verbal cues. The way we present our bodies can affect how our dogs perceive us and react to us.
For example, I generally 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. You should also have calm body posture rather than a very stiff, forward, and forceful-looking body posture, as dogs can find this very threatening and uncomfortable.
When a dog feels uncomfortable or threatened, they may display fearful, avoidant, 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 to you.
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 them doing instead and teach it to them. Alternatively, you can implement a management strategy to deal with the situation.
For example, if you want your dog to be quiet when you are working at your desk or on a video call, teach them to relax on a dog bed near your desk or give them something to chew on to stay occupied while you are busy working. Does your dog jump up on the kitchen counters? Teach them to go to a dog bed or relax near you, or put up a barrier so that they 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 them to do in specific situations so 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 influence the way dogs act, how they respond to you, and whether or not they can focus.
In order to set a dog up to succeed in different environments, we need to teach them in those environments. Just because your dog knows how to come when called inside your house, it does not mean they will understand how to come when called at the park, at a friend’s house, or while running around with a dog friend. In order for them to understand this, they will need to be taught in those environments and around distractions.
To start, teach 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 teaching them. Once the behavior becomes a piece of cake, then you can start making things more difficult by adding some minor distractions, increasing the difficulty level as your dog does well. Next, you can work in new environments with little distraction and increase the difficultly level when your dog is ready. If at any point your dog struggles, take a break. Identify why your dog is struggling. When necessary you can go back a step in your training to help your dog.
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 I teach most of his skills 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 $5 bill or a $50 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 to teach and reinforce! That means even if you are not doing a formal training session, any interaction with your dog can be considered a teachable moment.
Tip #16: Identifying Problems
Identifying problems sounds easy, but it can actually become quite complex. An easy way to start identifying training and/or behavior problems will be to keep notes in a notebook, tablet, etc.
First, write down the training or behavior problem(s) you are having. Each problem should be its own page or section in your notebook.
Next, write down what happened before the problem occurred. List everything you are able to identify. For example, your kids entered the room, the doorbell rang, someone dropped something in the other room, etc.
Then write down what specifically happened when the problem occurred. For example, your dog growled at the kids or walked away from you during training.
Lastly, write down what happened after the problem occurred. Was your dog able to calm down? Could you continue training your dog? Was your dog stressed out for the rest of the evening? These are just some of the many examples.
Once you identify problems, you can then start coming up with strategies to reduce the chances of them occurring again.
Tip #17: Learn How To Play With Your Dog
Many people who get a dog of any age go through basic training and obedience classes. Though these classes and the life skills they teach are very important, it is also important to learn how to play with your dog.
Most dogs enjoy play! It is the gateway to relationship building for many dogs. It can also become very beneficial when teaching a dog specific skills, as some dogs find play to be very motivating and rewarding.
Learning to play with your dog is a critical part of dog ownership. To learn more about playing and using play as a reward for your dog, check out our blog, which includes videos on this topic!
You can also check out the book The Interactive Play Guide by Craig Ogilvie, which explores how to play with your dog and how to use play effectively in training.
Tip #18: Enrichment
Enrichment comes in many forms. Training, playing, performing a job or task, or simply allowing your dog to sniff on a walk can all be enriching.
Enrichment can even include the use of food-dispensing toys like snuffle mats, slow feeders, DIY enrichment toys, a West Paw Toppl, or Kong toys. Chew items like bones or nylon chews are also a great form of enrichment.
Enrichment can help stimulate your dog’s mind, burn off some energy, and keep your dog occupied and out of trouble.
These are just a few of the simple ways to provide mental enrichment to your dog, but there are many others.
Mental enrichment is specifically important because it can occupy a dog, allowing their brain to work when you are busy and don’t have time to focus on them. It is also a great way to encourage your dog to do something independently, rather than being left to their own devices, which can lead to begging, counter-surfing, destruction, or other unwanted behaviors.
Tip #19: You & Your Dog’s Relationship
Relationship is everything! Think about it for a minute. Better yet, maybe take a minute to look back at everything in this guide.
None of the tips in this guide can be done without some kind of relationship. Human beings thrive on relationships, and so do our dogs.
How do we create a meaningful and lasting relationship with our dog?
For one thing, follow all the tips in this guide! Explore what you and your dog enjoy doing together. It could be training tricks, 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. Instead, I tried to be on his program. I listened to what he was telling me. The activities Journey and I both enjoy have definitely brought happiness to our lives and enhanced our relationship. This has made all the other tips in this guide much easier to follow and implement.
Tip #20: Have Fun
It probably goes without saying, but I am going to say it anyway. Have fun with your dog!!!!
Living with your dog should be an enjoyable experience for both of you. Owning a dog should enhance and bring joy to your life.
Furthermore, training your dog shouldn’t be stressful or a burden. Keep your training sessions fun and short.
If you find yourself getting annoyed, impatient, or even angry, end your session and take a breather. Similarly, if you find your dog is not enjoying your training session, end it for the time being. Reflect on why your dog didn’t enjoy the training session or why your dog and you were struggling. Then come up with a plan to improve and address the issues you and/or your dog were having.
Remember, the more enjoyable things are for you and your dog, the easier things will be moving forward.