By Dawn Gardner, Dog Trainer from Arkansas*
The relationship you have with your dog can bring either joy or heartache. We can vastly improve our bond with our best friend by understanding just a few important facts about who he is and how we can help him to be the best dog he can be. Every dog is an individual, but there are a few items that every dog would want you to know, and you will both be much happier if you take them to heart.
1) SOCIALIZE YOUR PUPPY EARLY
Early socialization is critical to the well-being of your dog. The peak socialization period for dogs is over at around three months of age, so keeping your dog sheltered at early age will cause him to miss this opportunity to learn that the world is a safe and interesting place to live. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, more dogs under the age of three die due to behavioral issues than from any other cause. Many of these behavioral issues can be prevented by socializing the dog during the first few months of life. Introduce your dog to a variety of people, places, and things. Find friends with healthy, vaccinated and friendly dogs that you can introduce him to. Make sure the experience is kept fun, and use play and treats to create positive associations with things that might scare him. Just be sure to consult your vet to make sure your dog is protected with the appropriate vaccinations.
2) HIS BODY LANGUAGE MAY NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES
Dogs don’t have words, so they communicate with body language, but that language is often misunderstood. Your dog doesn’t look guilty because he knows he was wrong. He is using appeasement body language to calm you down. When a dog feels threatened, he uses what trainers commonly call “calming signals”. Refusing to look at you, freezing, laying down, panting, yawning, cowering to make himself look smaller, and flicking his tongue up to his nose repeatedly, are all signs of a stressed out dog. Growling and snapping are also ways dogs communicate that they are feeling uncomfortable with a situation. As the bigger brained species in this relationship we owe it to our dogs to learn their language.
3) YOU MIGHT THINK THE PUNISHMENT FITS THE CRIME, BUT YOUR DOG PROBABLY JUST THINKS YOU’RE NUTS (SO QUIT PUNISHING HIM)
When using punishment, anything less than perfect timing will simply confuse your dog and leave him wondering why he is being mistreated. It can damage trust when your dog thinks you are hurting him for no reason, and chances are that is exactly what is happening when you punish him. Aggression causes fear which leads to aggression. Your dog is more likely to bite if he is afraid of you. And if your dog isn’t blaming you for the punishment, he is associating it with something in his environment. But very often with unwanted side effects like learned helplessness (where your dog is afraid to do anything and may just lay down or sit motionless) and aggression.
4) POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT WORKS FOR EVERY DOG (AND EVERY OTHER CREATURE ON EARTH)
Humans and dogs alike respond to positive reinforcement. One of the basic tenets of behavioral science is that you get more of behaviors you reinforce. It is much simpler to train a good behavior than it is to get rid of bad behaviors. If you train a dog to sit to greet, you don’t have to worry about a dog that jumps on guests. It’s much easier to train a dog where to walk than to teach him the multitude of places he is not allowed to walk. Your dog will be happier and understand what is expected of him. And he will be happy to comply, because being good is fun!
5) START TRAINING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
There was a time when puppies under six months were not trained. This made sense when punishment was used in most training classes, because not only could the punishment traumatize a puppy, but it could cause serious physical damage to his developing body. Modern trainers do not choke, pinch, shock, push, or drag dogs to get compliance. Instead we allow the dog to make choices, and we reward the choices that we like until those choices are all they want to do. There is no risk of damage to your pup. And pups can learn very early. I’ve personally trained puppies as young as three weeks of age, and all grew up to excel in obedience and the service industries they entered. They learned early how to learn new things. This gave them confidence, and helped develop them into dogs that could think for themselves and solve problems.
6) DON’T REINFORCE BEHAVIOR YOU DON’T LIKE
If a dog gets what he wants as a result of a particular behavior, he will repeat that behavior. If your puppy jumps on you when he’s little and you pick him up and cuddle him, please don’t be upset when you find yourself with an eighty pound dog that jumps on you for attention. If your dog steals something and you chase him, he’ll learn that this is a great way to get you to play with him. If your dog barks and you let him out of his crate, he will learn that barking is a good way to get out. If your dog pulls you into the grass to sniff that special spot, he will learn to pull on the leash to get where he wants to go.
7) TREAT YOUR DOG!
You don’t work for free, so why should your dog? Treats are an easy way to get behavior, and are easier to fade out than forceful methods. A dog trained with treats can be weaned from the treats as soon as the behavior is learned. But when punishment is used, often the threat must be present for the dog to behave. Consider how many dogs that are “trained” using pinch, choke, or shock collars every actually get to the point where the collar can come off forever. Not many. A good trainer can wean your dog of treats within a week or two of learning a behavior.
8) CLICK FOR YOUR DOG
Pairing a click with a treat causes a physiological reaction in your dog that is a powerful tool in training. In order to get a click, the dog must perform the behavior without prompting, allowing you to pick and choose which behavior you want to mark. It is a distinct and succinct way to communicate with your dog, and your dog will learn up to 30% faster with a clicker than with a verbal marker like “Yes!” or “Good dog!”
9) POSSESSION IS THE LAW WITH DOGS UNTIL THEY LEARN OTHERWISE
If I have it, it’s mine. If you have it, it’s yours. If nobody has it (like the sandwich you left on the counter when the doorbell rang) it is fair game. You have to train your dog to leave things alone when you leave him unattended. Otherwise he is just going to behave like a dog and take what he wants, and that may be your steak dinner.
10) DON’T ASK TOO MUCH OF YOUR DOG!
Always set your dog up for success by not asking more than he can do. If your dog isfailing to respond during training, make it easier for him and work up to the hard stuff step by step. One example of this is the “Stay” command. It would be unreasonable to expect your puppy to do a 30 minute sit-stay on his first try. So figure out the first (easiest) step toward that sit-stay, and work on it in a low stress environment with no distractions. You can add the hard stuff gradually. If your dog fails, you probably asked too much. Go back a step or two to where he was successful and work up to it in smaller increments until he’s got it!
Understanding your dog for who and what he is will go a long way in making sure your relationship brings joy to both of you. He is first and foremost a dog, and will do things the way that make sense to him. Understanding these few things about him will help you to better communicate and train him to fit into our human world. Your dog will thank you for it with his tail!
*Dawn Gardner is the owner of Happy Hound Pet Services, a private dog training company located in Rudy, Arkansas. She has been training dogs in obedience for over fifteen years. She also works with dogs with behavioral challenges including anxiety and aggression, and has worked with several breed rescue groups to rehabilitate dogs with behavioral problems. Dawn is certified through the CCPDT, the only nationally recognized and accredited certifying agency for professional dog trainers.