Teaching your puppy/dog some basic foundation skills and good manners from the onset goes a long way toward preventing problem behavior. Many clients do try to teach their pooch to sit and lie down, which is particularly helpful as default behaviors. If your dog learns to sit or lie down as one of his first skills, and it gets reinforced many times, it becomes a behavior he will offer again and again, by default. As both of these are calm behaviors, they are great ones to teach your pup in order to encourage a reposeful demeanor. When your dog is too excited all the time, it is hard for him to focus on what you want him to do, unless of course, you are in a play situation, where being goofy and excited is acceptable and fun! Therefore teaching him to be calm after play, for example, is a great way for him to learn self-control.
The recipe for having a well-behaved dog is simple, really. If you have a new puppy, start right now. If you have an adult dog, there is no time like the present. Even if you think your dog is ‘too old’ to learn new tricks, don’t be fooled. Dogs of all ages can learn new things. It is never too late to begin training your dog. As long as you choose reward-based positive training, you cannot go wrong. All you need is:
a) Determine what motivates your puppy/dog (food your dog will work for)
b) Ideally, if you know clicker training, a clicker is your best tool of communication
c) A treat pouch
d) Lots of yummy pea sized treats
e) Observe your dog and be ready to reward the smallest muscle movement toward your end goal
If you are not familiar with clicker training, use the word “YES!” as a marker to mark the moment your dog offers a behavior you like. For example, one of the best foundation skills to teach your dog is eye contact:
- Sit in front of your dog and wait for him to turn his head in your direction. Do not call his name, just wait. The moment his head turns even just a fraction toward you, mark (click) (or say YES!) and reward.
- Toss the treat away from you on the floor to reset your dog.
- Repeat this step several times without saying anything to your dog.
- Remember to toss the treat away from you to avoid reinforcing staring
- When your dog is repeatedly (10-15 times) giving you eye contact, you can begin to add a cue to the behavior (his name, in this case)
- Toss the treat away from you on the floor and say his name. The moment he begins to turn his head, click and treat (or say YES and treat)
- Repeat many times (do NOT forget to mark and reward EVERY time!)
Now you can begin to take the game further. As you walk around your house doing what needs to be done, and your dog is following you, say his name and mark & reward the moment he gives you eye contact. Keep practicing this several times a day every day. Reward him every time he comes to you on his own, without you calling him. If you carry yummy treats in your pocket always and reward his ‘checking in with you’, you will soon have a dog who loves to come to you because great things happen when he does!
If you have a dog who doesn’t seem to pay attention to you and is more interested in all other things, like my dog Milo was, follow these guidelines:
- Walk around your yard with your dog (or in your house). Wait for her to come to you. When she does, don’t say anything, just give her a treat (pea size- extra yummy, reserved only for this exercise. For instance, a small piece of meatball, something she doesn’t get at any other time.)
- Then walk the opposite direction away from her. Just ignore her and wait for her to come to you. When she does, give that extra special yummy treat again and walk the other way, ignoring her. Do not say anything to her.
- Practice this repeatedly over days, or weeks, until she comes to you on her own again and again. Trust me, she will!
Milo now follows me wherever I go and watches my every move. He is a clicker savvy dog and still gets paid every time!
Be proactive and reward your pup often. Don’t wait until problems pop up. Reward the good behavior your dog is already offering. Teach her to sit before going out the door and to sit before receiving her dinner or her favorite toy. Instill good manners just like you try to do with your kids. Encourage play but also encourage calm behaviors like Go to a Mat, which is one of the most helpful foundation behaviors you can teach your dog. I will cover that in a future Blog.
In training your dog, it is important to build skills in very small steps with lots of reinforcement (rewards). The reason the clicker is the best tool to mark a behavior is the distinct, consistent sound it makes, which is unique and unlike anything else your dog hears. We humans talk a lot and our dogs have no chance of distinguishing between our constant flow of words, unless those words have been taught to your dog to have a particular meaning (a cue for a behavior). Dogs learn by association and repetition, and if you add a cue to a behavior before the actual behavior itself is learned, the cue (word) will have no significance to your dog. Science has taught us that if an animal is rewarded for a behavior, the likelihood of that behavior being repeated increases. In order for a dog to know which behavior earned the reward, and thus which behavior is worth repeating, we need to mark the moment the behavior is offered. The click is much more precise,than our voice, in pinpointing to your dog the correct behavior.
Therefore, if you are not familiar with clicker training, using the word ‘YES!’ in an uplifting tone, is a better alternative to the clicker than saying ‘Good boy/girl’, for example, as we humans tend to use that a lot with our dogs. If you can keep the same tone every time, that is, ‘YES’ can work . However, using the human voice is subject to lots of variables, like our emotional state, the tone of our voice, and so on, so our ‘YES’ will invariably sound different from time to time and can never be as distinct and precise a marker as the clicker.
It is well worth the effort, as dogs who are clicker trained love this game, and so will you!