One of the most important things you can do for your dog is to train them. More than just doing tricks, obedience training will keep them safe, and keep them from tearing up your house. It will teach them how to behave when meeting new people and other pets, and you’ll be better able to keep them under control when you take them out into the world with you.
But dogs don’t learn the same way people learn; hundreds of repetitions of a single behavior have to happen consistently before a skill can be considered truly mastered. This takes time, so be patient. You can’t just give your dog a command and expect them to comply without being shown what it is that you are asking of them first.
Punishment and correction are not abuse
An important component of training is punishment and correction for non-compliance. Let’s be perfectly clear here: punishment and correction are not cruelty. Punishment is a consequence of non-compliance. It is the interruption of the non-compliant behavior – it brings your dog’s attention back to you so that you can get them refocused. A correction reminds them of what you are asking, and helps them achieve successful compliance. Punishment absolutely does not include beating your pet or causing physical harm – that would be abusive, and is absolutely not being advocated at all here. It aslo does not mean yelling or screaming at your dog. That is counter-productive, and unnecessary.
Levels of Obedience Training
Generally speaking, there are various levels and types of training. Obedience training teaches your dog acceptable behavior through repetition and reward. Behavior modification conditions your dog through consequence and correction.
This is the level that you start off at. Basic obedience commands teach your dog to behave indoors and out. Teaching these basics to your dog will help them be better behaved – and can save their life. Some of the most important commands to start teaching your dog right away are:
- Come (recall)
- Out (move away from someone/something/somewhere)
- Down (lay down)
- Kennel (when you want your dog to go into a crate or kennel)
- Drop It
- Leave it
These commands are generally started when a dog is still a puppy – under 6 months or so. But they are necessary for any dog of any age to learn. Repetition will be your best friend – this is how a dog learns. But before you can expect compliance, you have to actually teach your dog what you want him to do. Be patient, get the reps in, and compliance will come easier and more quickly over time.
Intermediate Obedience Training
This is the time to add in a higher expectation of compliance. Working at this level builds on the foundation laid by the basic training commands, and adds the challenges of:
- Heel (walking at your heel, but not ahead of you)
- Loose-leash walking
- Basic recall
- Duration (how long your dog can hold the command)
- Compliance in spite of varying levels of distractions
At this level, the basic “no” command is essential as an interrupt. It should immediately bring a halt to the non-compliant behavior in progress, and refocus your dog’s attention back on you. As with training at the basic level, patience and repetition is imortant. Over time, you will see more consistent results.
This is also a good time to start “proofing” your dog’s trained behaviors. When your dog has achieved reliable compliance in the yard, move out to the driveway or front yard. Head out to a park or empty field, or hit the local big-box home improvement store. But always keep your dog leashed when in public – for everyone’s safety, including and especially for your dog’s safety.
At this stage, your dog should be reasonably compliant with the basic and intermediate levels of command. This is when you increase the difficulty of your training by increasing the level of distractions. You can also work in additional commands and work on various levels of recall.
Advanced Off-Leash Recall
This level of compliance is required if you’re training a hunting or herding dog, and it’s a good thing to train for safety reasons.
When you work on your advanced recall commands, you should always start in an enclosed area, and give it time. Your dog should demonstrate reliable proficiency and compliance with any command before attempting to move it to the next level:
- Hand signals
- Off-leash recall (voice command, hand signals)
- Out-of-sight recall (voice command only)
- Behind-the-back recall (turn your back to the dog and use voice command only)
- Distracted recall
- On-the-fly basic commands (getting the dog to sit/stay/come while it is running or walking)
While training your dog to do tricks is a fun way to entertain yourself and your dog, it’s also a great way to strengthen your bond. A solid level of obedience training is helpful when trying to teach your dog tricks. Some fun things to teach your dog are:
- Shake (or paw)
- Roll over
- Up (on hind feet, on command)
- Over (a hurdle)
- Through (a tunnel obstacle like on an agility course)
Some dogs lack confidence, and this will show in their behavior. They can be nervous, reactive, or shut down. Running an agility course is a great way to help your dog build confidence:
- Going up and down ramps
- Getting up on low platforms
- Walking on a narrow beam
- Weaving through posts
- Crawling or running through tunnels
These are all fun activities for dogs that require a measure of confidence. Going up ramps and getting up on platforms teaches them to cope with heights, and weaving through posts gives them a bit of a directional challenge. Going through tunnels helps a bigger dog get comfortable in small enclosed spaces, and takes advantage of a smaller dog’s (particularly terriers) natural instinct to go after burrowing animals. These activities also help the dog learn to keep their focus on you – the handler – to listen and watch for the next command. The American Kennel Club has some great information about the sport of agility, and how you can get started at home.
Should I train my dog myself or hire a trainer?
Training your dog yourself requires consistency, repetition, time, and patience. Choosing to train your dog yourself can build a great relationship between you and your dog, and you’ll have fun with it, too. It can be trying at times – downright frustrating, in fact. Especially if your dog has behavior issues like reactivity or resource guarding. But training your dog is worth every second.
On the other hand, hiring a trainer can jump-start your training progress, and achieve results faster. You can find trainers who offer classes with days and times to fit your schedule. These training classes are good if you want something to support your own training at home. But, if you feel that your training isn’t progressing as fast or as reliably as you want it to, you can do a board-and-train program. As the name suggests, a board-and-train program involves sending your dog to a boarding facility to be trained. These training programs really accelerate the training process.
However, as with any training program, unless you follow through on a daily basis and hold your dog accountable, your training efforts will fall apart quickly. Some backsliding is to be expected as your dog grows into physical and social maturity, and again as your dog ages. But hold your dog accountable through it all. You may find yourself revisiting things that you think your dog should already know, and that’s alright. Just stay consistent. It all pays off in the end.
*For more information and resources on training contact the Jackson County Animal Protection Society.